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Patient care assistant training

By: Carol Tierney, PhD, RN, NEA-BC; Lori Wood; Julie A. Holt, MSN, RN, CENP; and Jamie Heidrich, MSN, RN, CNL, CEN

This organization-specific course enhanced competency and saved time and money.


  • Acute care patient care assistants (PCAs) and nursing staff reported insufficient training for new PCAs.
  • In response to this feedback, nursing and hospital and developed an in-house training program that reduced the time and costs associated with new PCA education.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 195,400 RNs will leave the nursing profession from 2021 to 2031. Addressing this predicted nursing shortage will require innovative approaches and the support of well-trained assistive healthcare personnel, including patient care assistants (PCAs). To ensure these unlicensed healthcare workers can meet the demands of the work required of them, they must receive appropriate training and ongoing education.

At The Christ Hospital Health Network (TCHHN) in Cincinnati, Ohio, feedback regarding training courses attended by new-hire PCAs during the onboarding process indicated that they weren’t receiving instruction appropriate to their work in an acute care hospital. To address this shortfall, the chief nursing officer set out to create an internal PCA course (with didactic, simulation, clinical experience, and testing components) to provide knowledge, skills, and competency customized to the organization.

Inadequate training

TCHHN, which first received American Nurses Credentialing Center Magnet® recognition in 2010 and most recently in 2020, has over 2,000 frontline team members (including RNs, licensed practical nurses, and PCAs) who provide direct patient care. The previous onboarding process for PCAs included a state tested nursing assistant (STNA) program offered by a local career training facility. Many PCAs reported that the curriculum didn’t cover the skill and time management needs of an acute care facility; it focused on long-term care/skilled nursing facilities. As a result, unit educators had to supplement onboarding of new-to-healthcare PCAs with impromptu training, including taking vital signs, using hospital equipment, conducting blood sugar testing, collecting specimens, and performing ECGs.

In addition, the state of Ohio STNA certification requires annual continuing education specific to long-term care/skilled nursing facilities. PCAs credentialed under the STNA struggled to maintain their certification while employed in the acute care environment. The hospital received only a minimal return on investment by sending new team members to external STNA training.

Business case

Per the Ohio Administration Code, PCAs work under an RN, who delegates assignments and tasks. At TCHHN, PCAs play an integral role in providing safe patient care. Newly hired, new-to-healthcare PCAs attended 2 weeks of external career training, which required 16 hours of clinical rotation in a long-term care facility. After completing the training, they participated in 3 days of centralized hospital orientation. PCAs and unit-based educators reported that these new employees didn’t receive an adequate foundation for the care they’d be expected to provide in an acute-face facility.

The CNO asked human resources to present a business case for moving from STNA training to an internally developed PCA training course. The proposal highlighted key differences, including a shorter training period, more appropriate curriculum, and reduced costs. (See External vs internal training)

The CNO accepted the proposal, and implementation began in the third quarter of 2019. A PCA role content expert partnered with training and development experts in the organization’s network learning department to design and implement the internal PCA course in 2020. The director of the Center for Nursing Excellence oversaw curriculum development; the manager of clinical education directly supported the training course.

Course development

PCA course development began in late 2019 with plans to launch the new program in the winter of 2020. The course development team addressed several questions: What will be taught? Who will attend? How many days should the course take? How do we ensure students absorb the information? What do they require for success?

Time and structure

The team decided to focus on new-to-healthcare employees. Many of the new hires were in their first to third year of college and just beginning their healthcare journey; most were attending local nursing programs. To address the time constraints of college schedules, the team developed a program of 4 consecutive days, 8 hours each. Days 1 and 2 are didactic and hands-on training in the simulation lab; Day 3 consists of a morning skills review, clinical hands-on rotation with a preceptor on their home unit, and a debriefing. Day 4 is testing day (a 50-question written test and a hands-on skills test with the course instructor selecting three random skills for return demonstrations). Courses are offered once a month with the possibility to add classes as needed. The classes are capped at ten students to one instructor.

Skills and curriculum

Next, the team reviewed the PCA competency packet with the TCHHN educator forum. After exploring the RN-delegated tasks included in a PCAs daily routine, this house-wide council made recommendations regarding skills for course inclusion. These skills include checking vital signs and blood sugars, providing perineal/urinary catheter care, positioning patients, collecting specimens, transferring patients, and charting. The team also reviewed the PCA job description and included several additional elements, including safety, hygiene, comfort, nutrition, exercise, and elimination.

To ensure an evidence-based approach to the course, the team referred to resources such as Lippincott’s Textbook for Nursing Assistants and Nursing Reference Center Plus. Grouping skills created an efficient course flow, which was then broken down into four teaching modules, two each day. Each module includes objectives and hands-on return demonstrations that students are later tested on randomly. (See Course objectives)

Course objectives

The internal patient care assistant (PCA) training course includes four modules, each with its own objectives.

Module 1

  • Define the PCA role on the healthcare team and its core responsibilities within patient care.
  • Understand the policies related to the PCA role and basic expectations.
  • Relate principles of communication to the role of the PCA within the healthcare setting.
  • Recite basic medical terminology to better communicate within a healthcare setting.

Skills tests

  • Demonstrate handwashing.
  • Demonstrate airborne isolation, contact isolation, contact plus isolation and droplet precautions, and donning and doffing.*

Module 2

  • Define the term “vital signs” and interpret the importance of each vital sign in a healthcare setting.
  • Locate oxygen regulators, measure flow, and identify basic oxygen delivery methods.
  • Define deep vein thrombosis, its risks, and associated interventions for prevention.
  • Understand and collect specimens of sputum, stool, urine, and fingerstick.
  • Name different types of hot and cold therapy and basic safety measures for use.

Skills tests

  • Practice and demonstrate taking vital signs—temperature, pulse, respirations, oxygen saturation, and blood pressure.*
  • Demonstrate basic support of sequential compression devices.*

Module 3

  • Identify fall and safety measures within the healthcare setting.
  • Understand the policies related to the PCA role for safe patient handling and fall prevention plans.
  • Locate emergency cords and code lights in the healthcare setting.
  • Define the term “pressure injury” and name two interventions for prevention.

Skills tests

  • Demonstrate gait belt use, tying a restraint, performing the maxi move, and using a sit-to-stand aid.*
  • Demonstrate patient transfers and positioning.*

Module 4

  • Count and tabulate the patient nutrition values in a healthcare setting.
  • Understand and collect specimens of sputum, stool, urine, and fingerstick.
  • Discuss and demonstrate elimination systems in a healthcare setting.

Skills tests

    • Demonstrate oral care.*
    • Demonstrate perineal care on male and female patients in a simulation setting.*
    • Demonstrate bathing in a simulation setting.*
    • Demonstrate making occupied and unoccupied beds.*

*Practice and demonstrate skills learned in a unit setting.

Simulation lab

The team collaborated with the in-hospital simulation center staff, which includes RNs who specialize in group teaching, working with high-fidelity simulators, and specific debriefing techniques. The team aimed to present an experience similar to actual patient care. Simulation manikins help to provide true-to-life practice; they can moan, groan, sweat, simulate high and low blood pressure, code, and switch from male to female. In addition, class supplies, stocked by the simulation team, are the same as those used on the units.

Clinical rotation

On Day 3, students move to using what they’ve learned on real patients. In a 6-hour clinical rotation on their home units, the students work with a PCA preceptor who stays by their side to offer mentoring and guidance, and to answer questions. After completing the clinical rotation, the students participate in a debriefing session with the course instructor.

Final evaluation

Testing concludes the course on Day 4. To help reinforce what the students have learned and ease test anxiety, the day begins with a brief content review. Individually, students complete a written test and a hands-on skills test with the course instructor. The skills test is pass/fail; the written test passing grade is 80% and above. If students don’t pass the written test, they can participate in a remediation session focused on the questions they missed and then take a new test.(To read more about the final course design, See Final course design.)

Clinical leader buy-in

The team presented the course design to clinical leadership for their feedback and approval. They highlighted the differences between the previous training and the new course; the biggest positives were time and cost savings. The presentation received an overwhelmingly favorable response.

The managers asked about electronic health record (EHR) access by the students. As a result, a computer access/welcome session was added to the course to ensure a complete orientation. The welcome session gives students access to their work email, timecard, scheduling, and the EHR system.

They also received access to the e-learning platform, which has become an important piece of Day 4 as they learn about basic life support (BLS) and its skills, annual hospital safety training, and other regulatory topics. By the end of Day 4, the students will have completed the PCA course and become BLS certified through the American Heart Association.

Goals achieved

The goals of the internal PCA course included enhanced competency development, decreased orientation time, and reduced costs. Historically, the organization paid about $1,674 per person to train through the outside facility and compensate the PCAs at their hourly rate. The internal course went live on February 18, 2020. By March 2023, 394 students had participated, with a cost savings of $659,556.

The internal course, which reduces training time by 1 week, allows for improved competency development by focusing on content specific to the skills and time management needs of an acute care facility. This has downstream impacts as unit educators no longer need to supplement PCA orientation.

The clinical rotation provides PCAs with an introduction to their home unit and an opportunity to test their newly acquired skills and return to the course with follow-up questions. Based on course feedback, this approach improves PCA confidence.

The pass rate for the course is 99.2%; 391 out of 394 students passed their skills and written competency tests on the first attempt. Those who didn’t pass received remediation and retesting. All passed the re-test.

The PCA retention rate 1 year after implementing the training program was 88% (91 of 103 students remained with the organization). In 2023, the team added a formal check-in focused on feedback and retention. The clinical training specialist meets individually with each course participant 3 to 6 months after course completion to check in on them and support retention efforts. Recent 2023 data indicate a retention rate of 77.5% (110 of 142 students remain with the organization). (See Positive feedback)

Positive feedback

Both students and leadership provided positive feedback for the internal patient care assistant (PCA) course via online surveys. Statements regarding the strengths of the course included the following:

  • “I think that the whole course was extremely helpful and prepared me for my role as a PCA. There was a great balance of time for instruction and simulation.”
  • “The strengths of this course were that the information was clearly presented to me with appropriate help when needed.”
  • “Providing the time to practice skills and allowing the students to shadow their floors for a few hours during training was helpful to slowly get us familiar.”

When asked if they would recommend the course to other PCAs, one participant stated the following:

  • “I would 100% recommend them to take the course. Taking the course would not hurt them in any way. This class allows you to become way more comfortable with the patients before ever going into their rooms. It is like it gives you a boost of confidence because you know what you are doing.”

When asked “On a scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied were you with this course? 10 being very satisfied,” 97% of respondents gave the course a score a 9.

Survey feedback from unit leadership included comments such as the following:

  • “I do believe we have more flexibility with this course, easier to get them started on the unit, feel content is more relevant.”
  • “This has been a very positive addition to the orientation of our newly hired PCAs. This is a much more seamless process. Great Job!!”
  • “Most of my PCAs that have come through have excelled faster than those from years past… The convenience of them being in-house is amazing!”

Meeting needs, developing confidence

Through Transformational Leadership (the hallmark of organizations that have received Magnet recognition) provided by the CNO, the PCA course team developed effective training that reduces costs and decreases orientation time. By customizing the training to meet the needs of PCAs working in acute care, the organization has helped to increase their skill levels, enhance their healthcare knowledge, and build their confidence for their professional journey.

The authors work in patient care services at The Christ Hospital Health Network in Cincinnati, Ohio. Carol Tierney is associate chief nursing officer. Lori Wood is a clinical training specialist II. Julie A. Holt is chief nursing officer and vice president. Jamie Heidrich is manager of clinical education services.

American Nurse Journal. 2023; 18(9). Doi: 10.51256/ANJ092362


Carter P. Lippincott Textbook for Nursing Assistants: A Humanistic Approach to Caregiving. 5th ed. Ambler, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.

The Joint Commission. Competency assessment vs orientation. April 18, 20222.

Ohio Legislature Service Commission. Ohio Administrative Code Rule 4723-12-01 Definitions. February 1, 2012.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Registered nurses. September 8, 2022.

Key words: transformational leadership, unlicensed role, training, nurse retention

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