Internationally-educated nurses sidelined as B.C. hospitals face staff shortages

B.C. Nurses have reported inadequate staffing in hospitals for months. There are internationally-educated health care workers that could help fill the gap. But as Kier Junos reports, one nursing school director says the process to get them into the system is too slow.

Rodolfo DaLauta Lastimosa Jr. works three different nursing jobs in Toronto. Like many internationally-educated healthcare workers, he faced a long wait before he could practice in Canada.

As B.C.’s healthcare system continues to face pressure due to rising COVID-19 hospitalizations, compounded by staff absences due to illness and exposure — some say these workers are sitting on the sidelines for far too long.

“It was really tough journey for me,” Lastimosa Jr. says of the effort to get credentials.

“It’s very different here in Canada because they are very strict, you have to follow certain protocols and policies. But in terms of skills, it’s quite similar.”

While waiting six months to get licensed in Canada, he took another job as a homecare worker for seniors — the only option available where he could put some of his skills and training to use.

Last week, Ontario’s health minister announced a plan to deploy internationally-educated nurses to the province’s overwhelmed hospitals and long-term care homes. Participants would be supervised by a licensed nurse or doctor, and will ultimately have the opportunity to become permanent staff. More than 1,200 nurses have already applied.

Related Video: 

Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc, the director of UBC’s school of nursing, says too many skilled nurses are stuck waiting for credentials here in B.C.

“The process for actually evaluating and vetting internationally-educated nurses takes way too long. It is way too slow, and we are missing a very skilled workforce that could contribute, and they can’t right now.” 

The vetting and certification process itself, according to Saewyc, isn’t the problem. She says the issue is mainly with resources.

“The problem is that the system of those checks and balances is actually really understaffed and it takes a really long time for applications to be processed,” she says.

“So, unfortunately, what that means is we do have a large number of internationally-educated nurses who could actually be practicing right now, but don’t have the paperwork.”

Another way Ontario is bolstering their healthcare workforce is by tapping students to fill gaps. Saewyc says while programs like the one at UBC have been able to fast-track their students somewhat, there is a limit to how much the process can be accelerated.

“There’s only so much you can do to speed it up. I’m sorry, but would you really want someone who has had an accelerated process that is too accelerated?” she asks.

For example, she says nurses in the program are now being evaluated based on competency. This is a shift away from requiring the completion of a specific number of practice hours. However, this only allows students to graduate a few weeks earlier.

“It’s high stakes, people’s lives and their long-term health are at stake here when it comes to ensuring that people have effective education.”

Saewyc says nursing students are still being trained in clinical settings, although there was some worry that staffing shortages would mean there would not be enough registered nurses to supervise them.

“They’re actually adding to the workforce in a way. They’re getting supervised by their instructors, and they’re able to provide some relief. They’re welcoming us with open arms.”

Nursing schools including BCIT have created programs to give frontline workers fast-tracked COVID-19 specific health care training. But Saewyc says the solution to the staffing issues that have been created and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic can’t be solved in nursing programs.

“If we’re really talking about what needs to happen in a pandemic, it’s not about the students. It’s about changing the working environment for the staff, and making sure that there are strategies that the healthcare system can do to actually make it a survivable work environment for nurses in practice, and that helps keep them retained and keeps them in practice.”

CityNews has asked B.C.’s Ministry of Health if the province is considering the moves being made in Ontario, including creating a pathway into permanent positions for internationally-trained healthcare workers. The province has not yet responded to our request for information.

With files from The Canadian Press

Top Stories

Top Stories

Most Watched Today