Calgary

These Albertans are fighting for licensed practical nurses to be recognized as more than assistants

A group of licensed practical nurses (LPNs) are calling on the Alberta government to reclassify their role to direct nursing care alongside registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses.

Reclassifying LPNs would help recruit and retain nurses in Alberta, grassroots group says

From left to right: Ginny Wong, Quintin Martin, Lenora Evans and Amy Whitehead are fighting for the reclassification of LPNs in Alberta with their grassroots group, LPNs for Change. (Submitted by Ginny Wong)

If Ginny Wong didn't have family in Alberta, she says she would leave for a province that formally recognizes and respects her as a nurse.

She's a licensed practical nurse (LPN) who works in High River, Alta. But while she does the job of a nurse, her position isn't classified as such in Alberta.

"It's frustrating," said Wong. "We are nurses and we do nurses' jobs in this province … but we're not even classified as nurses."

That's why Wong and three other LPNs, through their grassroots group they call LPNs for Change, are calling on the Alberta government to reclassify their role to direct nursing care.

The move would put LPNs alongside registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses, which Wong said could help recruit and retain nurses in Alberta and create better trust with the public.

nurses
Wong says despite having fairly similar day-to-day work, LPNs have restrictions on things they can do compared to RNs, even if they were trained to do them. That includes administering insulin drips and giving vaccines to children under five years old, but it depends on the facility. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

LPNs in Alberta are currently classified as auxiliary nurses — a group that helps nurses take care of patients. And that description was true when the role was created during the Second World War as a desperate measure to help with a nursing shortage. At the time, they were called certified nursing aides.

Since then, their education, scope of work and even title has changed significantly. But the classification hasn't been updated.

Some other provinces across Canada formally recognize LPNs as nurses, including B.C., Ontario and Nova Scotia.

According to Alis Alberta, a website that provides education and career-planning information to Albertans, LPNs earn approximately 35 per cent less than RNs. LPNs require a two-year diploma, compared to a four-year bachelor degree for RNs. Still, Wong said both roles do fairly similar day-to-day work.

Leaving Alberta for Ontario

Becca — whose real name CBC News has agreed not to use — worked as an LPN across various departments in Alberta for more than a decade.

She left Alberta for Ontario two months ago.

"The respect kept declining over the years, and that was a big reason why I left," Becca said. 

"One day I came home and was like, 'I can't do this anymore, getting treated poorly, being called a bottom feeder, a certified Band-Aid applier.'"

Becca is now settled in Ontario and has a new job lined up. She's doing LPN courses to keep up with the province's legislation for safe practice.

"When I transferred my license out here, it was $30,000 cheaper to go to school, and you get a lot of respect, which I haven't felt in probably seven years."

While she said she wouldn't move back to Alberta, Becca is rooting for the classification change for her former coworkers, who she knows are still experiencing the disrespect she used to feel.

"I believe we would get more respect from the greater public and coworkers."

'It's time for this to be changed'

The LPN situation is a good example of outdated governmental language that needs updating, according to Tim Guest, president of the Canadian Nurses Association.

"The reality of it is it's time for this to be changed," said Guest.

Tim Guest is president of the Canadian Nurses Association. (Teckles Photography Inc.)

Changing the classification would have no real impact on the system, he said, but it would improve the morale of LPNs in the province.

And keeping up morale important, Guest said, especially "at a time when our health system needs them very much, at a time when there's a shortage, at a time when they can get a job anywhere."

Kathy Howe, executive director of the Alberta Association of Nurses, agrees.

"Auxiliary nursing doesn't adequately describe them anymore," said Howe. "They don't practice underneath RNs or underneath nurse practitioners — they practice beside them and they provide direct nursing care."

According to a statement from the office of Brian Jean, Alberta's minister of jobs, economy and northern development, there are five health care bargaining units in Alberta, which are based on job functions and not occupational title.

LPNs are part of the auxiliary nursing care bargaining unit.

To change that classification, an application would have to be sent to the Alberta Labour Relations Board "to assess whether an LPN's increased scope of practice aligns with the scope of practice of direct nursing care," the statement said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karina Zapata

Reporter/Associate Producer

Karina is a reporter/associate producer working with CBC Calgary. She was a recipient of the 2021 Joan Donaldson Scholarship and has previously worked with CBC Toronto and CBC North. You can reach her by email at karina.zapata@cbc.ca

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