Posted on May 21, 2009

Program Comes to Foreign Nurses’ Aid

Derek Sankey, Calgary Herald, May 19, 2009

Dharen Brar spent three years earning a diploma to become a registered nurse in India and worked in the intensive care unit of a hospital there before moving to Calgary in 2003.

She knew there would be language barriers to overcome, but she decided to write the English challenge exam anyway. “I tried to do the English test, but it was a little bit hard,” says Brar.

She spent some time looking at her options, then she heard about a new program that just launched this May at Bow Valley College. It’s called the Integrated Practical Nurse diploma for Internationally Educated Nurses. She was accepted.

“I just want to work in my field because I miss my field–it’s been almost 10 years now,” says Brar. “I want to be a help to everybody.”

She is among the lucky first group of foreign-trained nurses taking the program, which was designed specifically with a heavy focus on English as a second language and learning the Canadian health-care culture.

“Where a lot of immigrants have problems, particularly in the hospital environment, is the rapid-fire language that’s necessary in a hospital,” says Isabel Gibbins, dean of BVC’s English as a Second Language department.

“In emergency situations, you have to comprehend very quickly what’s being asked of you and be able to respond very quickly,” she says.

The idea sprang from a pilot program offered at NorQuest College with funding from the province and federal government. Its success prompted officials at Alberta Employment and Immigration to expand the program to other parts of Alberta.

While it might seem like a step down to go from being an RN to licensed practical nurse (LPN), a lot of the students can’t get into nursing because of their language skills or lose their jobs because they’re not able to communicate at the level required.

“If you come in as a practical nurse, you’re working in the environment, hearing the language, improving your skills and it is possible to then go back and do an RN exam,” says Gibbins.

That’s exactly what Brar intends to do, perhaps after spending some time in the workforce as an LPN.

“It’s getting closer to your goal than if you didn’t have the training and assistance,” she says.

The college is offering an information session Aug. 12 for the next intake, which begins in January 2010. “We have high hopes for the program,” says Gibbins.

Potential students are assessed for their qualifications, English abilities and suitability for the program before they are accepted.

With an ongoing shortage of health care workers, especially RNs, and an aging population that will require an increasing amount of health care services, colleges and governments are beginning to invest more in these types of programs, just as they aim to expand the number of seats available to existing Canadians.

“Predictions are that on the current path we’re on, we can’t possibly meet our needs for health care workers in the future with our own workers in Canada, so we have to look to other sources,” says Pamela Nordstrom, director of the Faculty of Nursing at Mount Royal College.

Mount Royal recently partnered with Vancouver-based Intuto Canada Inc. to launch a new website called,which provides internationally educated health professionals with five online tutorials to help them integrate even before they set foot on Canadian soil. “Sometimes, (immigrants) want to get started prior to even moving to Canada,” says Nordstrom. “This is a practical thing they can do to help them when the come here.”

The nuances of English are a big enough challenge, but when you add onto that English within a health care context, it can quickly become bewildering.

Nordstrom says programs such as this one are proactive steps educational institutions are taking to help alleviate the current and forecasted shortage of health professionals, but it doesn’t solve the problem alone.

“It’s only one part of a solution,” says Nordstrom. “First, we have to pay attention to making sure that we’re getting Canadians who want to become nurses in the system, but we also need to provide support for those who want to move here.”