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A nurse puts on her personal protective equipment prior to entering a patient's room in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at St. Paul's hospital in downtown Vancouver, April 21, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

British Columbia is embarking on an aggressive campaign to recruit and certify internationally trained nurses amid a nationwide shortage in the profession.

The B.C. government announced Tuesday that, in an initiative launching in May, it will simplify the pathway for eligible internationally educated nurses (IEN) to enter the province’s health system. It promises to invest $12-million to fast-track the accreditation process, provide bursaries to ease the financial burdens and create nurse-navigator positions to assist IENs through the regulatory and licensing process.

The province will provide a maximum of $16,000 to about 1,500 IENs to pay for application fees, English language testing, travel and education upgrading. It will be available to applicants who are already in B.C., as well as those looking to relocate there. Applicants who are already in the process will also have access to the bursaries.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the existing accreditation process for IENs is complex, costly and lengthy.

“And that – in a time when we need nurses, and we need people that use the skills that they have, and we want people to come to Canada and to use their skills in Canada – is no longer acceptable,” Mr. Dix said at a briefing Tuesday morning.

B.C. and other provinces across the country have been pushed to look for ways to build the nursing work force, as many in the field have been leaving their jobs or experiencing work-related burnout owing to the COVD-19 pandemic.

Currently, registration and licensing of IENs can take an average of 18 months to two years, with some nurses waiting years.

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Registering as an IEN requires English Language testing, credential and competency assessments, and document submissions to numerous organizations, including National Nursing Assessment Services, Nursing Community Assessment and BC College of Nurses and Midwives (BCCNM).

B.C.’s initiative will enable IENs to be assessed simultaneously rather than one by one for multiple professions, including for health care assistant, licensed practical nurse and registered nurse.

The new program will also allow IENs to work as a health care assistant or a licensed practical nurse while they upgrade their training to work as a registered nurse.

“This is going to reduce those waits – for some people, significantly. It depends on the individual circumstances of the nurse involved … In some cases many months, close to a year,” Mr. Dix said.

He added the process will be very quick for highly skilled nurses, and those who are already recognized in some countries, particularly the United States.

He also said the province will also launch a marketing campaign across Canada and in other countries in order to recruit nurses.

Both B.C. Nurses’ Union and BCCNM applauded Tuesday’s announcement.

“We are in desperate need of more staff and these internationally educated nurses are one immediate solution to the nursing shortage,” said Aman Grewal, president of BCNU, which has been calling for improvements to the assessment and licensing processes for years.

Ms. Grewal said the union has been hearing from nurses trained in countries such as Britain, Australia, the U.S., Ireland, India and the Philippines had to go through the cumbersome process, adding that thousands of nursing positions across the province went unfilled last year.

Elizabeth Saewyc, director of UBC’s nursing school, said it’s an important move by the B.C. government, although some parts of the process are out of its control, such as the national document assessments.

Dr. Saewyc said at a national level, it would help if there were a way to resource the national documents assessment service to provide more staff who could speed up the process of document checks – which she pointed to as one of the key delays.

Joan Atlin, director of Strategy, Policy and Research at World Education Services, a non-profit that’s been addressing the underutilization of IENs in Canada, said major barriers related to immigration status the registration process and employment opportunities need to be removed.

Ms. Atlin said both the national and provincial strategies are needed for integrating internationally educated health professionals.

“It’s a systemic problem. And there’s no one player who can fix it,” she said.

With a report from Canadian Press

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