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Canada’s nursing shortage long predates the pandemic, but over the past few years, alarm bells from the medical community have reached a fever pitch. Meanwhile, internationally educated nurses (IENs) face a cumbersome, expensive process when it comes to getting licensed in Canada, from having their credentials approved by their province’s college of record to the myriad trials and tribulations of attaining permanent resident status.

Spectrum Health—a 40-year-old Toronto-based home care firm with a staff of about 3,500 nurses and personal support workers (PSWs)—recently launched an initiative to help address the shortage. In the spring of 2022, Spectrum started working with third-party agencies to bring in highly qualified nurses educated overseas, primarily in the Philippines or India. After the candidates are vetted by the agency, Spectrum conducts thorough virtual interviews. When they make a hire, the company supports them through the entire process of getting licensed as a nurse in Canada—including the initial hurdle of getting a visa.

The crux of the program is bridging employment. Spectrum hires the nurses as PSWs, affording them financial security while they work to get their professional licence in Canada. Spectrum also offers training and mentorship, short-term subsidized housing in Toronto’s east end in a home called Spectrum House, and supervision through their final clinical placement and evaluation.

“Yes, we hope these nurses fall in love with home care and become part of our future workforce. We know that won’t be true for everyone, but that’s okay, because it’s still the right thing to do as far as building capacity for the system,” says CEO Sandra Ketchen. “When they land, we spend time orienting them to Toronto, including setting them up with basics like transit passes and food to ease the transition. And since many of them have never experienced a Canadian winter, we even help them navigate getting winter gear. We try to provide wraparound support. "

Since its inception, 43 nurses have come in through the program, with seven more scheduled to arrive in the first quarter of 2024. Seven have recently passed their College of Nurses of Ontario exam and are awaiting permanent resident status—a process that can take significantly longer than the professional licensing, averaging up to two years from the time they land. “These may not seem like big numbers in the grand scheme of things, but if everybody who employed PSWs did something like that, it could make a big dent in the shortage,” says Ketchen. “And in the meantime, they make incredible, highly skilled PSWs.”

The program’s first graduate, so to speak, is set to start work in community nursing in January. While it’s likely the first of many success stories, it’s an expensive process, and the future of the program may be contingent on government funding—which Spectrum is actively soliciting. The company has also called on the federal government to expedite the permanent resident process for IENs.

“At the end of the day, we’re doing this to provide the best possible care for seniors in our community,” says Ketchen. “IENs may not be the ultimate solution to the health care capacity crisis, but with the right government support, there’s no reason they can’t be a big part of it.”

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