Training and Integrating Sonographers via Dedicated Preceptors

Hiring new staff members is risky business. Despite all the resources invested in identifying and evaluating qualified candidates, there’s no guarantee they’ll be a good long-term fit for the department. As new staff members begin to settle into a new job, there are a variety of reasons why they might ultimately leave the position. Many of these reasons can be traced back to deficiencies in orientation and training programs. With this in mind, it is of the utmost importance to invest appropriately in the onboarding process. A successful onboarding and training program provides benefits to the candidate and the organization.IMG_2125

My experience with these processes comes primarily from my current position as the Ultrasound Educator at St. David’s North Austin Medical Center in Austin, Texas. A huge portion of our sonographers are hired and contracted to maternal-fetal medicine (MFM) clinics around the Austin area; working for Austin Maternal-Fetal Medicine. Expectations for these sonographers are high. They perform all ultrasound examinations common to maternal-fetal medicine practice, including fetal echocardiography and diagnostic 3D/4D techniques. The scarcity of qualified candidates means that we often hire candidates from out of state, and integration to the department and community are among our primary concerns; having a structured training program helps with that.

New employees spend their first 2 days on the job attending facility orientation. Their third day of work is their first day in the MFM department. They’ll meet with leaders and physicians, and tour all relevant areas. In addition, I spend some time with them reviewing the training process and setting expectations. At this time, we pair them with a Sonographer Preceptor. The preceptor/trainee assignment is, of course, subject to change, but we try to limit this as part of the goal is to provide some stability and consistency during the training period.

The standard training period is 3 months in duration, although, we have extended training in some cases up to 6 months. This period may look different for various candidates based on their prior experience level. However, there are several characteristics that remain fixed:

1. One-on-one work with a preceptor

The Sonographer Preceptor is expected to directly observe while offering real-time feedback, every part of the trainees workday. This level of intensity may only be reduced after consultation with the Ultrasound Educator.

2. Weekly preceptor feedback report

This weekly report is filled out by the Preceptor and reviewed with the trainee. They review things that are working well and also plan which tasks need additional focus for the following week.

3. Image review with the Ultrasound Educator

On a weekly or biweekly basis, the trainee will meet with the Ultrasound Educator to review the Preceptor feedback report and review a selection of examinations from the prior week.

4. Didactic and written material for review

Each candidate is supplied with protocols, American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine (AIUM) guidelines, review articles, and some pre-recorded lectures that cover essential quality standards and approaches for the department.

This high-touch training period helps to ensure that we have a strong understanding of the progress being achieved and can quickly adjust if we do not see steady growth.

Many people will recognize that it takes years to develop strong, comprehensive skills, in the performance of MFM ultrasound examinations. So what can we expect to accomplish in only 3 to 6 months? Upon completion of the training period, the sonographer should be able to:

  1. Complete normal fetal anatomic surveys, fetal echocardiograms, and other examinations in non-obese patients, demonstrating an understanding of proper technique, measurements, and optimization.
  2. Exercise professional discernment by getting help when their own efforts do not produce the answers or quality they expect.

These two goals may initially appear to be overly simplistic, but they work together beautifully in the transition out of the training period and into independent performance. Completion of normal (relatively easy) examinations proves that they understand the target. They understand what normal looks like and the essential techniques involved. The second point is key as it gives department leadership the confidence to allow them to work independently, because we know that they understand what good enough is, and we know that they have the resources they need in order to help them when they cannot meet expectations on their own. This is an important skill that never expires. This is relevant for sonographers, physicians, and other health care practitioners throughout their careers. Knowing when you’ve hit your limit and when to seek additional counsel is key to providing the best care to our patients (regardless of one’s particular level of expertise).

These two benchmarks, along with ongoing quality assurance efforts, help give us confidence in our team even as they continue to grow their individual skills and proficiencies over the coming years.

A note on Preceptor selection

Key to the success of this process is the selection of Sonographer Preceptors. These team members fill two distinct (individually important) roles: technical trainer and social integrator. With that in mind, selection of the individuals who fill this role is very important. Social characteristics we look for are warmth, kindness, extraversion, and the tendency to be inclusive. Technical expertise is evaluated based on history, quality assurance, physician feedback, and ability to evaluate and explain abnormal cases.

Full-time training in a one-on-one environment for 3 months or more at a time can be emotionally and mentally exhausting (even if rewarding). With this in mind, we try to maintain several Preceptors on our team so that these sonographers are able to work independently for extended periods between training new employees.

The social and integrative aspects of our Preceptor Program are not formally defined, yet the benefits are clearly evident. We see that our new employees make strong connections with their preceptors and other team members, frequently having lunch together and engaging in other extracurricular activities during time off.

It is important to point out that preceptors should typically be individual team members—not leads, supervisors, or managers. These formal leaders have other administrative duties that will inevitably get in the way of the one-on-one, full-time training involved in a preceptorship. Of course, leads, supervisors, and educators, may set aside time for some training of new hires, and this is certainly beneficial. For example, in our departments, I frequently set aside time to work with new hires or existing employees on specific skills such as 3D/4D, fetal echocardiography, or abnormal cases. Sonographers enjoy these sessions and benefit from them, but that does not replace the benefit of having a dedicated preceptor.

People don’t stay in jobs where they feel disconnected from the culture and community. This training program, with assigned preceptors, helps to meet the human need for connection in addition to building and verifying technical skills that are necessary for success.

For additional reading:
https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeshumanresourcescouncil/2017/09/21/seven-ways-to-integrate-new-hires-and-make-them-feel-welcome-from-the-first-day/#1282eff640f6
https://www.thebalancecareers.com/employee-orientation-keeping-new-employees-on-board-1919035
https://trainingindustry.com/blog/performance-management/dont-ignore-training-when-onboarding-new-employees/

Does your practice have a mentor program for sonographers? Comment below, or, AIUM members, continue the conversation on Connect, the AIUM’s online community.

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Will Lindsley, RDMS (FE, OBGYN, AB), RVT, is an Ultrasound Educator in Maternal-Fetal Medicine and Fetal Echocardiography in Austin, TX.