Nova Scotia

She wants to be a nurse, but a 94% average wasn't enough to get into program

Nova Scotia's need for nurses has some questioning why the province doesn't simply train more people.

Nursing is one of the most competitive programs at N.S. universities, colleges

Abby Poffenroth of Antigonish was shocked that she didn't get into nursing school despite her 94 per cent average graduating from high school. She's hoping the province expands the number of seats so more people can be trained to fill gaps in the system. (Submitted by Abby Poffenroth)

Abby Poffenroth spent her high school years focused on one thing: becoming a nurse.

When she graduated this past spring with a 94 per cent average, Poffenroth never imagined she wouldn't make the cut for the program at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.

"I knew it was pretty competitive, but I didn't realize it was as competitive as it was until I got the letter saying I was not accepted," said Poffenroth, 18, who is from Antigonish.

"I had my mind so set on it.... I wasn't really thinking about any other options."

Nova Scotia's desperate need for nurses has some people questioning why the province doesn't simply train more people like Poffenroth, especially as those who are from the province are more likely to stay and work.

In July, Nova Scotia Health said the total nursing vacancy rate had hit 20 per cent.

Poffenroth is now taking an alternate program at St. FX University in hopes of switching into nursing later in her studies. (The Canadian Press)

Premier Tim Houston has said it's an option being considered, but the solution is more complicated than it sounds.

That's because the staffing gaps they need to fill are limiting the number of students who can be trained, as the programs contain clinical, on-the-job components. Clinical placements require supervision by working nurses who are already overtaxed. Nurses working double shifts in wards with staffing shortages aren't likely to take on the supervision of a student.

Last week, Houston announced the province was guaranteeing all Nova Scotia nursing graduates a job for the next five years. The province estimates there are 700 nursing graduates a year. 

At that time, he was questioned about increasing school capacity. He responded that problems with finding clinical spots need to be addressed before the province can commit to training more people.

"I think we've got to make sure that the product we're offering is the best it can be," he said. "Then increasing enrolment of that product is ... part of the long-term solution, so it's certainly something that we want to do."

Demand not an issue

Poffenroth is one of four Nova Scotians who spoke to CBC News after they were rejected by nursing programs in the province due to intense competition. The others did not want their names published out of fear it would affect their chances when they apply again.

They pointed out the significant shortage of nurses in the province is not caused by a lack of interest in the field.

St. FX told CBC News it received 451 applications for the fall 2021 academic term, and only had 120 seats. When deciding who gets admitted to the program, the university said an applicant's grades account for 60 per cent of that decision, while the remaining 40 per cent is determined by someone's performance on the CASPer test, which is a provincially mandated part of admission.

But the stiff competition isn't just in Antigonish.

When Poffenroth didn't make the cut at St. FX, she scrambled to submit her name to the Nova Scotia Community College's practical nursing program, only to discover there's a two-year wait-list.

4:1 applications

NSCC estimates there are four qualified applicants on average for each available seat.

"It's a popular program, without a doubt," said Roxanne Williams, school manager for the school of health and human services at NSCC, which includes the practical nursing program.

Nursing is offered in 10 locations through NSCC. Of those, eight start new streams every two years.

Williams encouraged anyone who wants to take the program to at least get their name on the wait-list, noting the numbers fluctuate.

New seats in Cape Breton, Yarmouth

The province has begun to see an increase in the number of students being trained. In July, the former Liberal government permanently added 70 new seats in Cape Breton and Yarmouth to help those from rural areas study closer to home.

Eight of those seats were for Dalhousie University's Yarmouth campus.

Then-health minister Zach Churchill announced an expansion of the nursing programs at CBU and Dalhousie's Yarmouth campus last summer. (Communications Nova Scotia)

Dalhousie University said the nursing program is one of the most competitive, with 192 spots in Halifax and 33 now in Yarmouth.

Cape Breton University also fills up quickly every year. Because of that, the school said it offers support to students who don't make the cut in an effort to help them get accepted the following year. 

Both Dalhousie and NSCC said any expansion of the programs would depend on the province and the willingness of health-care professionals to help with the expanded training needs.

Williams said an issue finding clinical placements at the beginning of the pandemic has since been resolved.

"We're always in communication with the government and our industry partners," said Williams. "The numbers of seats are always evolving."

Dalhousie University's nursing program is one of the most competitive at the institution. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

For students like Poffenroth, it means taking an alternate path and considering other options just in case. She is now at St. FX, studying human kinetics.

She's hoping that will keep the door open for a later entry into nursing when she applies again, and said the desperate need for nurses is extra motivation for her to enter the field.

"Not getting in made me second-guess things," she said. "But it also made me realize that it's still what I want to do regardless."

With files from Rose Murphy