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The British Columbia government announced Tuesday that it’s adding more than 300 spots at public postsecondary institutions for students training in certain health professions, including laboratory techs and physiotherapists, amid a staffing crunch that has exacerbated constraints within the health care system.

The announcement was made a week after the premiers met in Victoria, where they demanded the federal government increase its share of health funding to address a staffing crisis that has forced the temporary closing of emergency departments across the country, led to record levels of worker burnout and created obstacles for Canadians accessing health services.

Anne Kang, B.C.’s Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Training, announced that up to 322 more permanent and one-time-funded college and university spots for allied health professionals are being added.

In British Columbia, the allied health work force provides a range of preventative, diagnostic, technical and therapeutic health care, as well as clinical support services. These professionals include medical laboratory technologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and dietitians.

More than two-thirds of the new spots will be added by fall 2023, with some starting as early as summer 2022.

Additionally, Ms. Kang said the provincial government is spending more than $10-million to train, retain and support allied health worker professionals, which includes $4.5-million in bursaries for internationally educated high-priority allied health professionals working toward being licensed in B.C.

Premiers call for more health care funding to address staffing crisis

The government is allocating $3-million in professional development funding to the Health Science Professional Bargaining Association to support the training and upgrading of health-science professional development in occupations such as medical laboratory technologists and pharmacists, and $1.5-million to support 36 Facilities Bargaining Association employees to become medical laboratory assistants to meet critical shortages.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said there are often significant public discussions focused on the importance of doctors and nurses, but health sciences professionals or allied health professionals, have also “been of fundamental importance during the pandemic.”

Kane Tse, president of the Health Sciences Association of B.C., which represents more than 20,000 specialized health science professionals working in almost 70 professions, said allied health professionals are in dire shortage.

“Every day I hear from specialized health professionals like respiratory therapists, physiotherapists, laboratory technologists and many others. They are really struggling. They tell me about posted vacancies that go unfilled for months and months at a time, leaving them buckling under the workload as they keep trying to provide care for patients,” he said.

“It’s just not sustainable.”

Mr. Tse welcomed the announcement, calling it a step in the right direction that will increase recruitment of many health science professionals in serious shortage right now.

He added his association is negotiating with the provincial government to address the retention of specialized health care professionals. “And that starts with a fair pay increase.”

He noted some of these professionals are leaving B.C.’s public health care system because they can earn more in the private sector or other provinces.

A representative for B.C.’s Hospital Employees’ Union that represents more than 2,400 medical lab assistants, agreed on the importance of retention.

“We had a staffing crisis before this global pandemic, but each new wave of COVID-19 pushes health care workers closer to the brink. We know that one out of three of our members is considering leaving health care in the next two years because of workplace stress and burnout. We need to invest in our frontline workers to make our health care system sustainable and ensure that patients have quality care when needed,” said Meena Brisard, HEU secretary-business manager.

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