Edmonton Nursing Attendants Fill Health-Care Gap

The almost insatiable demand for nursing attendant (NA) graduates in all types of medical institutions in the Edmonton area, as demonstrated by a newly launched 16-week program in the city, suggests that big staffing changes may be in the offing in the trenches of health care in Alberta

Evidence suggests that many health-care institutions in that city have realized that given the cost of health care, it is extremely inefficient to have the officers of medical care (registered nurses and licensed practical nurses) doing the work of foot soldiers (nursing attendants).

The Edmonton NA training program has a 98 per cent hiring rate and a huge waiting list of prospective students. Furthermore, both acute and continuing care centres have asked for nursing attendant training practicums to be held in their facilities.

There is only one Alberta NA program certified by the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) and it is offered by a private health care training provider called Alberta Business & Educational Services Ltd (ABES). Training is conducted on site at the company’s facilities located at the Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre.

As an unregulated industry in Alberta, there is no standard curriculum for NAs. Therefore, anyone can offer NA training and there is no guarantee that a person purporting to be an NA has received training beyond the level of a store greeter. This is despite the fact that, according to ABES Edmonton program director Moira Quigg-McInnes, 70 per cent of health care workers employed in continuing care centres are NAs.

She says affiliation with a renowned post-secondary institution like NAIT, with a reputation for high academic standards and employability, has made all the difference for what ABES has to offer compared to what else is available.

While it is a private venture, it’s obvious where ABES has succeeded where many others have failed. Because of the quality of training its students receive, it has gained the support of other health-care professionals as well as opened doors to areas previously off limits to NAs. In particular, this is acute care. At present, graduates from the Edmonton program are employed at the city’s Cross Cancer Institute, the operating room of Edmonton’s Misericordia Hospital, as well as the emergency ward and cardio-pulmonary units at the University of Alberta Hospital. Students are even finding work in other parts of Canada and North America.

Quigg-McInnes says Edmonton’s NAs have managed to break down institutional barriers because ABES is developing its program curriculum to meet the needs of a wide spectrum of health-care environments, as more doors become open to its students.

Institutions accepting NAs from the Edmonton program have learned that program graduates require very little extra training to become effective team players.

The ABES program screens applicants prior to acceptance and attracts students from varied backgrounds, with the average being women in their early thirties. However, the age variance among students spans the spectrum from recent school students to 60-year-old grandmothers. At present, each 16-week session has 46 students. A few men have completed the program. Male NAs are in extremely high demand. The average starting wage upon graduation is about $12 per hour.

The ABES program is a combination of classroom instruction, lab work, and field placement. Students learn the basics of medical trench work such as checking vital functions, giving an enema, changing a catheter, making a bed properly, nutrition, patient transfers and even something as simple as communication skills.

“We remind our students how welcome a simple conversation is to a resident,” says Quigg-McInnes. “What we are trying to do is create a different level of care. The whole thing is to try to honor the dignity of the resident.”

Charlotte Semple is a single mother of four and a NA trainee at the Lynnwood continuing care centre. While the overall continuing care training aspect of the program was attractive from the start, what she particularly appreciates is that the course can be completed in 16 weeks, she can manage the course requirements despite her family commitments, and it provides a high degree of hands-on training.

Recent high school graduate, Eryn Sylvester, says it is a good entry point into the medical field without making a huge academic and financial commitment. Now that she has completed the program, she has decided to take advanced training as a registered nurse.

Nursing attendant Jan Oldegbers says it was an excellent opportunity to re-enter the workforce after raising her family, do something that she enjoys, with training she could afford, and with a curriculum that wasn’t overly intimidating after years out of the classroom environment.

All three said that while there may have been some hesitancy to accept someone new in the workplace among other health professionals, once they had earned their trust by their level of knowledge and enthusiasm, they were more than welcomed. In fact, their presence in many cases has broken down status barriers among health-care workers and inspired more teamwork.

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