School's director rallies to stem RN shortage

With 45 per cent of nurses due to retire, educating a new wave is critical, says nursing director Katharyn May

Fresh from her 12-month stint as the president of the Canadian Association of University Schools of Nursing, Katharyn May is eager to resume her post as director of UBC's School of Nursing, but she's bracing for the stiff challenges that face her.

"There's a nursing shortage out there that could bring the nation's health-care system to a screeching halt," says May.

With 45 per cent of Canada's current nursing workforce due to retire over the next decade, May says that nursing schools across the country are confronted by an urgent need to train and graduate more nurses.

But spots for nursing students in the province have, until the most recent provincial budget, been diminishing. In 1994, B.C. graduated 715 nurses a year compared to a mere 600 graduates in 1999.

That is coupled with a current global shortage in nurses--two out of every 10 new nursing graduates leave Canada for the United States. May likens the problem to "running up the down escalator."

She says it's difficult to blame Canadian graduates for fleeing south of the border given the attractive signing bonuses dangled by U.S. hospitals. In some cases they offer aid to repay student loans. On top of that, many new nurses get to choose in which hospital area they will work compared with the often long wait that many endure in Canadian hospitals to get their specialty of choice.

But the situation isn't all gloomy.

May cites statistics that show Canada will overtake the U.S. in the percentage of new nurses that have university degrees soon, reaching 85 per cent in 2005. She says that's in large part because, in 2005, Ontario will make a university degree a requirement for new nurses. Currently 20 per cent of practicing nurses have university degrees across the country.

"In some respects, UBC Nursing is very well positioned," says May. She points to the full implementation of the Multiple Entry Option (MEO) program this fall as an example of one of the methods the school is using to attract new students.

Instead of the three years of study required at most other nursing schools for previous degree-holders to get university-level nursing training, the MEO program allows people to do so in a two-calendar-year intensive program which concentrates on teaching the skills and theories of the profession.

May says this is a critical new applicant pool for nursing talent.

May, who is returning for her second term as director of the school--she was first appointed in 1994--is clear on what she would like to accomplish this time around.

"We have to be more efficient at recruiting bright, ambitious nurses into academic nursing," says May.

One way to do this is through expanding distance and alternative delivery of PhD programs, says May.

May is determined to work for increased funding for the school and to provide better scholarship opportunities for students.

She says that while the school will remain strongly focused on research, she will also further partnerships with clinical agencies.

The school recently celebrated its 80th anniversary.