Nursing students at Dalhousie called to work in long-term care may lose acute care experience 

Helping province with staffing shortage could leave students short, said petition

A Dalhousie University nursing student said she and her colleagues are happy to help with long-term care staff shortages, but they don’t want to lose out on other important experience. 

Ailish Pike, a Dalhousie nursing student in her second year and fifth semester of the three-year program, had to suddenly adjust her schedule in order to help the province fill staffing shortages in long-term care homes.  

She’s not alone. At Dalhousie, semester four and five nursing students are having classes suspended and are being asked to move into long-term care placements on Feb. 7 or pursue paid employment in these facilities.  

“We were going to have a semester in acute care settings, covering things like emergency ICU surgery, and pediatric care. That experience is all really valuable,” said Pike.  

Those placements in acute care, normally in March, have been replaced with the sudden February long-term care practicum. 

Students looking for wider range of experiences  

Pike and most of her colleagues were in long-term care homes during their first placements and she feels they have had much experience in it. 

“It’s not that we don’t want to help. We’re nursing students, of course we want to go where we’re needed, and we value long-term care. But we need a better range of experiences,” said Pike. 

“The skills we’d get from acute care are needed for us to be competent nurses. When you think about it in the long term, how is that going to help our nursing crisis? This is everyone’s health care system.” 

Pike’s sentiment is echoed by an online petition made by anonymous nursing students called “Nursing students’ education should not be at the expense of staffing shortages.”  

A statement attached to the petition reads, “Every aspect of our semester has been changed, and we are expected to complete midterms and finish our classes that are solely suited towards acute care settings without the education from clinical practice, which is how many of us learn.” 

The petition’s exact goals are unclear, but as of Feb. 9 it had 11,588 signatures. 

Honorarium available but not enough 

The province announced its plan to have healthcare students from different schools fill in gaps left by the province’s long-term and acute care staffing shortages on Jan. 28. 

Seniors and Long-Term Care Minister Barbara Adams spoke about the move at a news conference on Jan. 27.  

“There’s no way to sugar coat it. We’re working short-staffed across the province … we have to do every single thing that we can do to both keep them safe but also to provide them the support that they need to keep going,” said Adams. 

An honorarium is being provided by the province for the students working in long-term care centres. Students who accept a placement and are not already being compensated through a co-op or other type of paid placement will receive $1,000.  

Pike said this is a good step, but would like to see more support.  

“We’re really happy to see the honorarium, but it’s not enough for many of us to survive when we’re sacrificing hours working at our jobs. I know students putting themselves through school, I know students with children who have to suddenly find childcare for February on short notice, it’s really messy.” 

The president of the Nova Scotia Nurses Union Janet Hazelton calls the move a “good temporary solution.” 

Hazelton understands it is difficult for nursing students to suddenly change their schedules, but she believes work in long-term care will be very beneficial for them. 

“There are a lot of things in long-term care that are similar to acute care, and any exposure to long-term care is fantastic for these nurses,” said Hazelton.  

One thing Hazelton took issue with was a detail of the province’s statement which read, “Long-term care and acute care settings are experiencing staff shortages because of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus.”  

“The staffing levels and long-term care have never been good, ever. And COVID has just shone a light on it. We’ve been saying for a very long time, way before COVID, that we need to increase staffing levels through legislation,” said Hazelton. 

Despite these frustrations, Hazelton doesn’t want students placing too much blame on the province for this sudden change in their curriculum, saying COVID-19 has made everything more difficult in healthcare. 

“COVID sucks, it just does. But that’s why we need help more than ever,” she said. 

Pike said most nursing students at Dalhousie aren’t frustrated with the province turning to them for help but with their universities’ lack of information and support, especially surrounding acute care experience. 

In a statement published on Dal’s website, the director of Dalhousie’s School of Nursing Ruth Martin-Misener said, “Skills required in acute care are important and students will get these valuable learning experiences within their program.” But Pike said there has not been elaboration as to how. 

The statement also said details are “still being finalized and will be shared with students when ready.” 

Dalhousie’s School of Nursing did not respond to a request for comment. 

This story first appeared in the Signal on February 3. 

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Adam Inniss

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