Healthcare assistant (HCA) skills and qualities
Updated 24 July 2023
Working as a healthcare assistant (HCA) is a role that is both demanding and rewarding. Healthcare assistants work together to provide care services at hospitals, NHS Trusts and GP surgeries. Generally, it is the job of a healthcare assistant to ensure that patients are comfortable and that other healthcare professionals receive the support they need. In this article, we will cover the skills and qualifications expected of an HCA.
What is a healthcare assistant?
Healthcare assistants are individuals who support medical staff and patients in hospitals, GP surgeries and clinics. Healthcare assistants' skills help them keep patients comfortable and assist them with tasks they may struggle with, such as eating or washing. Although they are not required to have formal medical training, healthcare assistants will sometimes learn to carry out certain tasks like drawing blood and measuring vital signs.
A healthcare assistant is not the same as a care assistant. The latter term is more often used to describe those who work in care homes and in-home care. Healthcare assistants also differ from assistant practitioners (AP), who take on more responsibilities. Healthcare assistants have also been referred to as nursing assistants or nursing auxiliaries, although these terms are less common. Healthcare assistants can study or train to become assistant practitioners, as well as registered nurses, nursing associates, podiatrists or occupational therapists.
Healthcare assistant qualifications
The NHS stipulates no set entry requirements to become a healthcare assistant. Generally, you will be expected to have good literacy and some GCSEs, such as in English and maths (or equivalent), and basic computer skills. Additionally, employers may ask for certain vocational qualifications, like BTEC (Business and Technology Education Council) or NVQ (National Vocational Qualifications). The latter is provided by the NHS Foundation Trust.
While training to become a healthcare assistant, you will be taught basic nursing skills and work your way to securing the Care Certificate. This is a defined set of standards that you will need to adhere to as a healthcare assistant, and will assure your employer that you possess the necessary skills and behaviours to be an HCA. In addition to these qualifications, an employer may ask for relevant experience in care work or healthcare. If you are applying for a role in the NHS, you will probably be asked about the organisation's values and how you apply them.
Healthcare assistant skills
To be a healthcare assistant, you will be expected to have a certain set of skills, many of them interpersonal, whereas other role-specific skills will be taught to you. When starting, healthcare assistants will receive training to ensure they can carry out the tasks initially required of them. Below, we have outlined the most important skills that healthcare assistants need to possess, as well as skills that they will be trained for.
A competent HCA must be able to communicate effectively. Their role is to ensure that patients are relaxed and comfortable. Therefore, they must be alert and able to listen to patient needs, even if the patient has trouble communicating. HCAs assist nurses and other medical professionals and must be able to understand requests and instructions.
In addition to the patient and other medical staff, healthcare assistants will regularly need to communicate with administrators, other members of staff and a patient's family members.
Compassion and sensitivity
Healthcare assistants spend most of their time in contact with patients, meaning they are constantly exposed to people who are in pain, sick or otherwise physically inhibited. An HCA must care for these people, as they are often incapable of doing so themselves. Only a strong sense of compassion ensures that the healthcare assistant will remain caring.
They are also expected to be friendly and cheerful, which is something that is best when it is genuine.
Healthcare assistants usually work in a GP surgery, hospital or similar place with many other healthcare professionals. The ability to work together with colleagues effectively, and support them when needed, is vital for an HCA. The challenges of caring for the sick are constantly changing, and teamwork is the best way to overcome them.
However, a healthcare assistant must also be capable of acting on their own initiative when the situation demands it.
Willing to work hands-on with patients
Very often, patients who need the help of a healthcare assistant are incapable of carrying out basic tasks. This can include washing, eating and changing clothes, to name a few. Consequently, healthcare assistants should be willing to help patients carry out these basic tasks. With additional training, a healthcare assistant may also be expected to monitor a patient's pulse, blood pressure, temperature and other observations.
A lot of patients may find needing help is undignified, and healthcare assistants need to be able to work compassionately and without hesitation. An HCA must be completely comfortable around a patient, yet sensitive. This goes a long way towards making patients feel comfortable.
Patients who are struggling with day-to-day tasks will often go about them at a much slower pace, even when being assisted. A simple trip to the lavatory, or eating a meal, can take many times longer than normal. To provide effective and consistent assistance, healthcare assistants need to be very patient.
Often, just chatting with or listening to patients can go a long way towards making them feel comfortable and cared for. Healthcare assistants need the patience and empathy to do this with sincerity.
To help those who need it, a healthcare assistant must possess the physical strength to do so. Patients may have trouble getting up or moving around, and healthcare assistants will need to be able to help them in and out of beds, chairs, baths and more. When they are not doing this, healthcare assistants still spend most of their time on their feet.
Healthcare assistants need to make sure they look after themselves as well, so that they are physically capable of carrying out the tasks required of them.
Keeping medical equipment clean and sterile is vital to the functioning of any healthcare centre. Carrying out this task helps prevent infections and contamination, and can even save lives. This is especially vital during outbreaks and pandemics.
Checking patients' vital signs
With the necessary training, a healthcare assistant can check a patient's vital signs, such as blood pressure, heart rate and temperature. This is helpful for other medical professionals who can then focus on other tasks. Not only will a healthcare assistant be able to take these measurements, but also know when there is something to be concerned about.
Taking blood samples
The task of drawing blood, known also as phlebotomy, can also be carried out by a healthcare assistant with proper training. This involves not only drawing blood samples, but being able to assist patients who may be nervous. Healthcare assistants may also explain the process to unfamiliar patients, prepare them if someone else will conduct the phlebotomy and generally ensure the patient remains comfortable during the whole process.
Some healthcare assistants will be trained to perform urethral bladder catheterisation. This is done by inserting a flexible tube into the urethra, allowing patients with trouble urinating to do so freely. The fluid drains into a drainage bag and can relieve patients of significant discomfort.
Tips for improving healthcare assistant skills
If you want to develop the necessary skills to become a healthcare assistant, or are currently working as one but wish to improve, there are several ways of doing so. If you have no experience in care work, you can seek employment in similar roles, such as a care assistant. You can also seek volunteer care opportunities. This will also give you an idea of how well-suited you are to these sorts of occupations. You may have a member of your family who requires regular assistance, and helping them will allow you to become acquainted with what an HCA does.
There are also learning resources provided by the Royal College of Nursing specifically for healthcare assistants and assistant practitioners. These resources cover skills like infection prevention, digital skills and leadership. They also include basics such as a first steps resource that outlines the fundamental aspects of the role and the principles HCAs must adhere to. NHS websites also offer resources that will help you develop your skills as a healthcare assistant.
Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.
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