British Columbia

B.C. spending $12M to help internationally educated nurses get licensed

The province is spending $12 million to help make it easier for internationally educated nurses to become licensed to practise in B.C., hoping the move will help address a staffing shortage in the field.

Funding includes bursaries for 1,500 nurses to cover application, assessment fees

Nurses put on gowns in a hospital.
Nurses put on gowns in the intensive care unit at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C., on March 31. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The province is spending $12 million to help internationally educated nurses get registered and licensed faster in B.C., hoping the move will help address a staffing crunch in the field.

Officials said Tuesday the funding should shorten the long and complicated licensing process, which can currently take up to two years for nurses educated outside of Canada.

It also includes bursaries for 1,500 nurses — up to $16,000 each — to help pay for the series of national and provincial assessments required to be licensed in B.C.

"The process for internationally educated nurses is complex, it's costly and it's lengthy. That, in a time when we need nurses and we need people to use the skills they have ... is no longer, I think, acceptable," Health Minister Adrian Dix said Tuesday.

Currently, applications and assessments can cost a prospective nurse at least $4,200. If they need to upgrade their education, it can cost thousands more.

Nurses' groups said they have heard of nurses from the U.S., U.K., Australia, Ireland, India and the Philippines who have struggled with the clunky licensing and registration processes.

"It costs a lot. You come here, you're trying to start your life ... People just give up, a lot of people have given up," said Clifford Belgica, who leads the B.C. chapter of the Philippine Nurses Association. "It's sad, the status we're in right now."

With changes taking effect this May, nurses will be able to apply to be evaluated for multiple positions — like health-care assistant, licensed-practical nurse and registered nurse — at the same time instead of one by one.

The province said the change should double the number of nurses that can be tested every day.

"All of this will mean, depending on your circumstances, months of difference," Dix said, speaking to the licensing timeline for potential staff.

Healthcare workers walk near hospital row, on Toronto’s University Avenue, on Apr. 7. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

So-called nurse navigators will support potential hires through the assessment and recruitment process.

Dix said B.C. will also launch a marketing campaign across Canada and in other countries to recruit nurses to a province where the population is growing and aging faster than in other Canadian jurisdictions.

He said a provincial recruitment agency called Health Match B.C. will manage the bursaries and help hire the nurse navigators.

A statement said nurses who were educated outside of B.C. but want to practise in the province will be eligible for the bursaries, with "an initial focus" on those who already live locally.

Three-quarters of unionized nurses struggling with workload

Earlier this year, the BCNU said nurses are burnt out and desperate for relief. Staffing levels were already critical before the COVID-19 pandemic made it worse.

"We are in desperate need of more staff and these internationally-educated nurses are one immediate solution to the nursing shortage," BCNU President Aman Grewal said Tuesday.

"Every time I hear of the impact the staffing crisis is having on working nurses here in B.C., I can't help but think about the fact there are hundreds of trained nursing professionals who are caught up in the licensing and assessment process."

In January, a survey found 76 per cent of union members said their workloads have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The survey said 51 per cent of those working in emergency departments and intensive care units said the pandemic has made them more likely to leave the profession in the next two years.

Since 2017 and 2020, the number of licensed practical nurses in B.C. has risen 12 per cent. Registered nurses are up six per cent.

But as the overall number of nurses has increased in recent years, so has demand. Retirements, combined with an aging population that will need more care, are creating new pressures on the system alongside the pandemic.

In February, the province said it would be adding 602 new nursing seats to public post-secondary institutions to address the staffing crisis. They include seats for 362 registered nurses, 40 registered psychiatric nurses, 20 nurse practitioners and 180 licensed practical nurses.

Funding comes from $96 million committed over three years as part of last year's budget to expand post-secondary education and training capacity for health professionals.

With files from CBC's BC Today and The Canadian Press