Industry Insights
Thought Leadership

We have what we need to help close the Nursing Shortage gap

09/30/21   |  
Graeme Owens, EVP & Country Manager at Keypath Education Canada

Over the weekend, a headline appeared in the Toronto Star that caught my attention: “An Ontario nursing shortage has been predicted for years. Now, it’s turned into a ‘mega crisis.’”

As the headline implies, it’s news, but it’s not new. 

Nurses are in high demand around the world and no place really has anywhere near the number of trained professionals to meet that demand. Nor is it a surprise. Governments, hospitals, and nurses themselves have known this moment was coming for a long time. 

As Patty Winsa reports in the article, “As far back as 2009, the Canadian Nurses Organization predicted that the shortfall would reach 60,000 by 2022.”  A shortage of 123,000 nurses expected by 2030 was highlighted in a Health Workforce Australia report as early as 2014 and again in a Deloitte report in 2018. The UK National Health Service identified 94,000 vacancies in its healthcare workforce. The 2017 US Registered Nurse Workforce Report Card estimated an RN shortage of over 500,000 by 2030. 

COVID, of course, didn’t help matters. The Star article reports that the current US nursing shortfall could be as high as 1.2 million, and that some of those positions could be filled by nurses trained in Canada and lured south of the border. All of this, of course, is bad news for Canada. What’s worse, Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, believes there is no immediate solution to the crisis because training nurses takes such a long time and the need is so immediate. 

What are we going to do about it? 

Is there really nothing we can do to get more nurses into the system quickly? To answer that question, let’s look at four main barriers to success, and how they can each be overcome:

1) Lack of Instructors: Just as there are fewer nurses in the workforce to take care of patients, there are fewer instructors available to educate students in nursing and other healthcare fields. As Grinspun points out, the time it takes to train a nurse is considerable, and some of the most staggering shortages exist in rural communities where postsecondary education is not readily accessible. 

However, we know that there are thousands of pre-career people waiting to get in the door of nursing programs. The Ontario Universities Application Centre reported a 72% increase in applications for nursing programs in 2021-22. Demand for nurses was so high in 2020, and spaces were so limited that American universities and colleges were forced to reject more than 80,000 nursing applicants according to the 2019-2020 Enrollment and Graduations in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing Report. Where there is demand among students, there is an opportunity to address it - either through government support or an innovative institution. The best part? In a distance model, clinical supervisors are spread out in communities across the country and Master’s-trained instructors can teach online from anywhere.

2) Distance Deterrence: One of the biggest challenges facing the working learner is geographic distance deterrence: working professionals are already well-established in their careers and their communities. They have families. Mortgages. Responsibilities. They often can’t simply pick up and move to a campus. 

But online programs like the ones we design and deliver at Keypath are a fit for people who have career-oriented goals, but can't fit in on-campus education to upskill or reskill because of time, finances, work responsibilities, and life commitments. Already, there are five Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) programs available through distance programming in the US. It’s a start. 

3) Lack of Capacity: Keypath Education brings a global, data-driven perspective to its partner universities and works with them to build capacity through distance learning programs. These programs ensure that students who are tied to specific communities through their work, like healthcare workers, are able to learn online and complete their clinical placements in the communities where they live. Experienced workers can be upskilled or re-skilled in a way that creates flexibility for the learner while maintaining quality for the institution. 

Expanding enrolment beyond the campus footprint provides a university with new ways to connect working healthcare professionals and underserved communities with quality educational opportunities that, in turn, improve the lives of others, thereby fulfilling the fundamental mission of a university.

4) Technological Infrastructure: While the COVID-19 pandemic presents a massive global challenge, it has also been the catalyst for the kinds of innovations we need to build on distance programming. Hospitals and the people who work there are now making use of tools like tele-conferencing and telemedicine more than ever. The resources (such as secure platforms for communicating, cameras, screens, and internet bandwidth) needed to make it happen are already installed. 

In almost every sector, the pandemic has changed how we work; of course, health care is no different, even while under the extreme strain of managing the front line of the pandemic. “Prior to this, we were only doing about a couple hundred telemedicine visits a day,” said Kevin Sowers, president of the Johns Hopkins Health System. “Overnight, we went from a couple hundred to 6,000.” A recent study, “How the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic changed medical education and deans’ perspectives in Korean medical schools,” shows that health care education is being called to change, too: “They projected further innovations in teaching and learning methods ... and highlighted the need to invest in faculty development so medical educators can be equipped and competent in diverse ICT (information and communications technology) learning platforms.”

We Can Close the Gap 

The online education model for entry-level and advanced healthcare professionals presents an enormous opportunity for postsecondary institutions in every province to reach students where they are — whether living in rural communities or working full time and not able to attend a traditional in-person program. 

Closing the gap on this shortage will enable an entire sector to meet the needs of the people who depend on them, creating opportunities for people eager to re-train, reskill or upskill and make meaningful contributions in their communities through their careers. And it means bringing more students to universities who need them. Health care and education are two of the province’s biggest priorities, affecting every single Ontarian. 

Addressing the nursing shortage doesn’t have to wait. We have what it takes to act now. 

Learn more about Keypath Education’s approach to worldwide health care innovation: “Solving the Worldwide Healthcare Workforce Shortage Using Online Education