Canada is facing a nursing shortage. Here's why it's hard to fill the gap

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Canadian nursing schools are seeing a surge in interest amid the pandemic, but experts warn it may not be enough to alleviate the shortage of people working in the profession.

"It's good news that we have so many applicants," said Elizabeth Saewyc, a professor and director of the University of British Columbia's nursing program.

"But in some ways it's also really frustrating news, because we get stellar candidates, but we only have 120 seats authorized by the government."

UBC has seen a 31 per cent increase in the number of people applying to its Bachelor of Science in Nursing program over the last year, Saewyc told The Current's guest host, Rosemary Barton. Interest in the school's graduate nursing programs has doubled, she said.

The university isn't alone. In Ontario, nursing schools saw a 17.5 per cent jump in nursing applications from the previous year, CTV News reported.

Still, the health-care and social assistance sector saw a higher job vacancy rate than any other industry in the country in November, Statistics Canada's January Labour Force Survey shows.

Although provinces like Ontario and Nova Scotia have moved to hire more nurses to help fight COVID-19, many nurses are leaving the profession during the pandemic.

In a 2009 report, the Canadian Nurses Association predicted that Canada could see a shortage of 60,000 full-time nurses by 2022. Tim Guest, president of the association, said that estimate is based on a number of factors, including retirement projections, and doesn't account for the impacts of the pandemic.

Limited placements, educators

It's not just the limited number of spots in nursing programs that's contributing to the problem.

Saewyc said there's a shortage of clinical placements available for students to get hands-on experience in hospitals or other health-care settings. That's because many institutions are trying to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, she explained.

In order to let more students into nursing programs, there would need to be more educators as well.

"And unfortunately, at the moment, there are more PhD.-prepared nurse-educators who are retiring each year than we graduate new PhDs in Canada," Saewyc said.

Guest said it's "fantastic" to see growing interest in the nursing profession.

However, he said "there is a growing number of nurses that, when the pandemic is over, they are seriously thinking of leaving the profession."

Mental health supports are needed for nurses who are struggling right now, and for those who will be working in the profession post-pandemic, he said.

Other improvements could be made to retain nurses once they are hired.

Nurses are concerned that those who work in long-term care homes aren't paid equitably compared to those who work in hospitals, Guest said. They also say the compensation they're offered to work in rural or isolated communities isn't enough to encourage them to take jobs there.

Guest said governments can support nurses by providing educational opportunities, so they can adapt to the changes that are constantly taking place in the health-care system.

Governments should also make more spots available in nursing programs, he said.