Ontario has promised to put immigrant nurses to work faster. That change is long overdue

CBC News

Yamaan Alsumadi · CBC News · Posted: Sep 20, 2022

I'm a fourth-year nursing student studying at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., and I'm in a classroom filled with people who are perfectly qualified to help out with Ontario's health-care shortage.

Instead, they're getting retrained because their credentials don't count. 

This summer, Ontario's health-care shortage reached critical levels, with emergency rooms shut down and nurses and doctors burnt out. 

The issues in Ontario's health-care system have been ongoing for years, but this summer's shortages forced the Ontario government to act. This month, Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones approved a plan from the province's nursing college to get more internationally trained nurses into practice more quickly.

That's a change that's overdue and needs to be implemented as soon as possible. 

Right now, there are 5,970 active international applicants currently living in Ontario, according to the latest statistics from the College of Nurses of Ontario. 

Some of them are my colleagues at Lakehead's School of Nursing, and many are either physicians or registered nurses in other countries who end up doing another nursing degree in Canada to ensure registration and work.

But for those who immigrate with their families, they're faced with a choice: working in a minimum wage job or placing the family under financial strain to complete a degree. Essentially: My career or my kids?

One of my friends is a registered nurse from France with 15 years of experience in the intensive care unit. She has all the skills she needs to go into an emergency room right now, yet here she is sitting in a classroom, learning skills she has practiced thousands of times before. 

Another friend is a cardiothoracic surgeon who couldn't find a school to complete her residency in Canada; she is now a personal support worker, with a limited scope of practice in comparison to Registered Nurses, let alone a physician.

For most nursing positions in Ontario, the minimum requirement is a nursing degree from a Canadian university or Ontario college. Though there is an option for nurses trained outside the country to have their credentials recognized, some nurses report wait times lasting years. 

The nurses college says the changes will allow internationally-trained nursing applicants with education gaps "to register and practice as a nurse under terms, conditions and limitations for public protection while they complete remaining requirements."

As a result, it proposes to allow applicants who have completed nursing education approved in another jurisdiction to temporarily register, though they will have to be monitored by a registered practical nurse, a registered nurse or a nurse practitioner. A practice that is already done for nursing students across the country to build their nursing experience. 

This will increase the number of people working on the unit, minimizing the physical strain nurses have to endure when they are short-staffed, all while internationally-trained nurses gain the knowledge to practice nursing, meeting the standard of practice in Ontario.

Nursing and health-care worker shortages have become common and frequent. At times emergency rooms in communities like Ottawa, Kitchener and Red Lake, Ont., closed. In one weekend in August, six hospitals across the province had to close departments.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused immense burnout among staff, there were issues with staff shortages. 

The problem has been documented at least as far back as 2016, when an auditor general's report found Ontario's nurse to patient ratio was at times as high as one nurse for nine patients. That was more than double the established best practices of one nurse for four patients, the report stated. 

Then why did it have to take this summer's crisis to speed up the registration process? 

Registration can take up to five years, while  others are never able to register at all. How many nurses have dropped out already, forced to take another job because they couldn't wait any longer? 

It is unfair for immigrant health-care workers, especially when they've already had to prove their qualifications to immigrate; under Canada's immigrant entry points system, their credentials qualified them to immigrate to Canada in the first place. 

Ontario's nursing shortage is preventable; the changes proposed by the Ontario College of Nurses needs to happen as soon as possible. 

The years it takes for immigrants to be registered in Ontario are not necessary. They're demeaning to those immigrants qualified to work, and they're an extra barrier keeping those nurses from working on the front lines.