Respiratory therapy grads holding their breath for new exam date

Maddy Howatt and 15 of her classmates thought they were facing the last hurdle on their way to becoming registered respiratory therapists this week. But about five hours into the test, computer glitches forced its cancellation, nation-wide.

National licensing exam cancelled after five hours because of computer glitches

Madison Howatt, a graduate of the New Brunswick Community College respiratory therapy program, is waiting for another opportunity to write her licensing exam after computer problems cancelled the exam across Canada after it started. (Submitted by Madison Howatt)

Maddy Howatt and 15 of her classmates thought they were facing the last hurdle on their way to becoming registered respiratory therapists this week.

They graduated June 21 from the three-year New Brunswick Community College respiratory therapy program in Saint John and showed up at a testing centre Monday morning to complete a six-hour computerized certification exam.

They answered multiple-choice questions for three hours and had just come back from a lunch break, when trouble started.

A lot of my classmates were extremely upset. A lot of them were crying. - Maddy Howatt

"We started to get little error messages saying, 'Your answer cannot be saved. There's a connection issue,'" Howatt said.

Supervisors contacted the company delivering the online exam, Yardstick. 

Howatt said the company was aware of the problem and trying to resolve it.

Cancelled across Canada

She and her classmates sat around waiting for an hour before they were told they could log back in.

But about five minutes later, the technical problems returned.

After another prolonged phone call, word came that the exam was being cancelled across the country, said Howatt.

None of the answers already completed would count, even for the few students who'd finished all 260 questions and gone home. 

Members of the NBCC Saint John respiratory therapy class of 2018 can't get their licences until after a national exam is rescheduled. (Submitted by Madison Howatt)

"I was in shock at first," Howatt said

"I thought, this is a joke, this is a prank. We're going to be able to finish our exams. We had been sitting there for almost five hours at this point. I only had about 20 questions left.

"A lot of my classmates were extremely upset. A lot of them were crying."

Howatt said she's been told the exam will be rescheduled, but she doesn't know when. And she won't be getting her $1,000 back.

Delays work, paycheques

The Canadian Board of Respiratory Care, which makes students write the exam and grants licences, has referred questions to the company, Yardstick Assessment Strategies. 

Asked what went wrong and when the test will be offered again, Isabelle Gonthier, the Yardstick president and COO, told CBC News she would provide answers on Thursday.

"For a lot of people this is going to delay starting work," Howatt said. "This is going to delay paycheques. ... A lot of people are moving away to new provinces and to new cities to start work. All that … has to be put on hold for a little bit. It's a big mess."

Lower pay in meantime

Howatt said she can work at the Saint John Regional Hospital as a respiratory therapy grad, for a lower pay grade, but only if a registered respiratory therapist is on shift with her.

She said smaller hospitals wouldn't have more than one respiratory therapist working at a time, so some of her classmates are out of luck. 

"All we want is to become registered respiratory therapists ... we want to start our careers."

The Vitalité Health Network has six part-time or casual job postings right now.

An official with Horizon Health Network said it has no current permanent job openings for respiratory therapists, but is always looking for casual employees, as is the case with other health occupations.

What they do

According to NBCC's program description, respiratory therapists are trained to "assist physicians with the diagnosis, treatment and care of patients with breathing disorders or cardiovascular problems. [They] treat all types of patients, from premature infants with underdeveloped lungs to elderly patients with lung disease. They provide treatment and manage care for patients with chronic asthma or emphysema, as well as emergency care to victims of heart attack, stroke, drowning or shock."

CBC News also contacted NBCC for comment.

"We acknowledge the challenge this poses for our graduates and hope that the national board and its third-party contractor will resolve this matter as soon as possible," said spokesperson Tanya Greer.

This isn't the first time there have been problems with the RT exam.

Just last year, about 70 questions on the exam were incorrectly marked zero, said Howatt. That meant more than 130 out of about 400 graduates who wrote the test, were told they had failed, when they had actually passed.

Company's exam fumble hurts

"Some people lost jobs over this," Howatt said. "They went for a month, thinking they had failed."

And only some of them got their jobs back.

Howatt feels members of her class should all be compensated in some way for the stress and inconvenience.

"It's a national licensing exam taken by students across Canada," she said.

"I just can't believe these things are happening."