Prioritising Learning in a High-Stakes Environment

Last Updated: 07 July 2022

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One thing the COVID-19 pandemic taught healthcare workers was that they simply can’t do it all. This is through no fault or lack of anything: sometimes, there are simply too many pending tasks for a single human to complete.

This is why prioritisation is important: we all do it, whether consciously or not. However, it becomes a different ball game once the high-stakes environment of healthcare comes in. Not only does this apply to the clinical side of healthcare – ie. deciding which diagnosis is more pressing at a single given time – but the learning side as well.

So how can you figure out what to learn and when you should learn it? First, we’ll discuss why this is important, and subsequently how you can integrate effective prioritisation into your everyday learning habits.

Why is the prioritisation of learning important?

Prioritisation – ie. being flexible when choosing and structuring learning topics – is essential for your learning goals to stay relevant and achievable. If you don’t prioritise your learning based on the urgency of the topics at hand, you’re doing yourself a disservice by remaining rigid for no reason.

For example, if there were a sudden spike in Japanese Encephalitis throughout Australia, you’d probably want to replace your Friday study session topic with one on Japanese Encephalitis and its treatment options.

Techniques for prioritising learning

Get into the habit of active environmental scanning

Environmental scanning refers to healthcare professionals keeping up-to-date with any health-related opportunities or threats that may present in their communities. Not only will this help you stay abreast of current affairs pertaining to the healthcare industry and community, but it will also help you stay informed as to any impending surges of presentations.

This means you can more or less pre-emptively close or narrow knowledge gaps that are genuinely relevant to you and your community: this can be as general as a new flu strain entering Australia, or as specific as your local high school having a staphylococcus outbreak.

Build objectives based on the urgency of the information

Even if you’re not responding to a health crisis, it’s a good idea to already have a prioritised learning plan. This means you could pre-emptively prioritise the closing or narrowing of competency gaps that you or your manager have identified, while categorising any professional development as easily moveable in the grand scheme of things. This being said, you should not complete all of your competency-gap learning before you engage with your other less pressing learning: they should be interspersed, but the less important ones should provide the flexibility to respond to sudden topics.

Check in with your manager to identify any urgently-needed competency gap closures

Most healthcare professionals are already doing this, which is great! If you’re not proactively pursuing your manager to ask them what you need to improve on, that’s okay: now’s just as good a time to start as any. When you’re in constant discussion with your manager about where you need to improve and how you can do so, you’re showing them that you’re a driven professional and a core member of your team. Additionally, you’re giving yourself the best chance at not being blindsided by any unexpected gaps, which then gives your learning plan less of a chance of disruption. It’s a win for everyone, from you to your manager to your team to your patients!

What else is there to know?

As always, being organised is not everything. Becoming a great learner is not an overnight fix: you need to commit to establishing habits that work for you, and finding learning techniques that suit the way you think.

So, even if you’ve become very good at prioritising having read and applied the techniques in this article, that will only get you so far! Read up on the latest learning theories, techniques and industry developments to keep your professional development growing as you do.

Here are a few you can use to start off:

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