• continuing education;
  • effectiveness;
  • evaluation;
  • literature review;
  • nursing;
  • professional development

Aim.  The aim of this paper is to review the literature on what facilitates or inhibits continuing education in nursing and to identify ways to make continuing education more effective.

Background.  Healthcare professionals have always been encouraged to update their knowledge and maintain clinical competence. The rapid changes currently taking place within healthcare systems have increased the pressure from direct care providers, professional bodies and the general public for nurses to engage in continuing education programmes. Despite a growing body of empirical research on this topic, the effectiveness and impact of continuing education remains underexplored.

Method.  A literature search was conducted in January 2005 using CINAHL, Medline, the Cochrane databases and the Internet. Keywords used were: ‘continuing education’, ‘professional development’, ‘viability of continuing education/professional development programmes’, ‘evaluation of continuing education/professional development programmes’ and ‘effectiveness of continuing education/professional development programmes’. No date restrictions were imposed.

Results.  Factors that facilitate the implementation of continuing education in nursing arise from individual, professional and organizational perspectives. While the philosophy behind continuing education is to encourage nurses to become lifelong learners, the learning method chosen for such programmes is often didactic in nature, as opposed to encouraging nurses to take initiative and direct their own learning. Continuing education is intended to ensure healthcare practitioners’ knowledge is current, but it is difficult to determine if those who attend these courses are implementing what they have learnt.

Conclusion.  To make continuing education programmes more effective, nurses need to have a more participatory role in their learning. A concerted effort should be made to make continuing education attainable and realistic.