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Bold nursing-certification initiatives welcome news in fight against COVID

January 27, 2022

I am pleased to see that 50 Ontario hospitals will receive a welcome infusion of 300 foreign-trained nurses as they grapple with rising COVID-19 cases, with many more internationally trained nurses to follow.

This sidestepping of the usual rules regarding nurse certification comes after a collaboration between Ontario Health and the College of Nurses of Ontario. It is part of the efforts both groups are making to counter pandemic-related staffing challenges at hospitals and long-term care settings.

In a virtual news conference early in  January, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said internationally trained nurses who have applied to practise in Ontario will be given the opportunity to meet their application requirements by working in Ontario health-care settings, “under the supervision of a regulated health-care provider.”

Elliott said 1,200 applicants have already expressed interest in the program, which will lead to opportunities for them to become permanent staff at institutions in this province. She added that Ontario has 600 intensive care beds still available, with an additional 500 beds available if required.

Alongside Elliott at the news conference was Matthew Anderson, CEO of Ontario Health, whose agency co-ordinates many parts of Ontario’s health-care system.

“Every nurse matters. Every person that we can get to that front line of care makes a difference,” he said, adding, “We’re very keen to get this underway.”

This is great news for Ontario hospitals. The highly transmissible Omicron variant has put all health institutions under tremendous strain in recent weeks, due to rising case counts and staffing shortages.

As an example, the William Osler Health System in Brampton closed its urgent care unit temporarily, deploying staff to other departments.

Another radical approach was announced by two Hamilton hospitals. Executives at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton and Hamilton Health Sciences said they were considering allowing COVID-positive staff to work at their facilities. Other ideas being considered at the two institutions are to put patients in “unconventional spaces” such as hallways and sunrooms, and to close regional programs.

In an effort to get nurses into our health-care system more quickly, the College this week unveiled the Supervised Practice Experience Partnership. This program is designed for people who have “met all their registration requirements except for evidence of practice and/or language proficiency.”

“The program offers applicants the option to complete a supervised practice experience in Ontario to demonstrate current nursing knowledge, skill and judgment and language proficiency,” College information states. “Applicants gain relevant practice experience under the supervision of a preceptor, within a CNO-approved practice setting in Ontario, to meet the requirement to register as a nurse.”

Anne Coghlan, the College’s executive director and CEO, says the Partnership is another step in modernizing the applicant assessment process to ensure the province has the nurses it needs.

But those enrolled in the Partnership have to be careful in how they describe themselves. According to the College, they must “refrain from using the protected title, ‘RN’ or ‘RPN.’”

Instead they are instructed to tell patients, “I am a CNO applicant, applying to register as a XXXX. I’m completing a supervised practice experience as part of my requirements to enter the nursing profession under the supervision of a qualified supervisor.”

They are also instructed to “only provide care you are competent to provide,” and never “supervise, monitor, or direct the performance of others [or] delegate or accept delegation of a controlled act.”

It is clear Ontario needs more health-care professionals. Near the end of February the province reported more than 4,000 patients in hospital with COVID-19 including approximately 600 in the ICU.

The College and province should be commended for addressing the current staffing shortage in health care by allowing foreign-trained nurses to participate in the Supervised Practice Experience Partnership program. These are important steps toward getting Ontario through the current pandemic

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