While COVID-19 continues to spread, efforts across the province to limit transmission have seen the total numbers in Ontario align with the best-case-scenario projections hypothesized by the experts. The province’s hospital and ICU capacity have not been overwhelmed with patients like many other healthcare systems around the world. And thankfully, the feared extreme shortages of healthcare professionals in hospitals have not occurred. But that does not mean the situation cannot change at a moment’s notice and there is still critical need for more help – especially where the crisis has become acute in our long term care facilities. Not to mention the continued needs within our public health and shelter system.
The rise of COVID-19 has resulted in renewed national attention on the country’s internationally educated healthcare professionals (IEHPs). Ontario’s IEHPs represent a major untapped resource that can, and should, play an important role in supplementing and complementing our healthcare capacity not only during this crisis but beyond. These doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals (there are a total of 26 regulated health professions in Ontario) have extensive global experience in a range of settings and can provide linguistically and culturally relevant support to patients and their families. Today, they represent a tremendous asset where the needs are greatest: in long term care, public health, and community services. “Ontario’s healthcare system was already strained before the pandemic. The situation has become so dire in the long term care sector that the government brought in the army,” says Joan Atlin, Associate Director of Strategy, Policy, Research at World Education Services (WES) Canada. “And yet, we have an entire workforce of immigrant professionals who are anxious to be part of the solution and who are being overlooked.”
A recent Statistics Canada report sheds light on the vast underutilization of IEHPs in Canada. In comparison to their Canadian-born counterparts, many are either unemployed or underemployed in non-healthcare-related jobs. Although immigrants already comprise 25.5% of the healthcare and social assistance sector in Canada, they are less likely to be working in jobs that match their full range of skills, experience, and education.
“Although the Canadian spirit is one of generosity, healthcare employers may think twice before taking a chance on a stranger who is just figuring out the local labour market,” says Dr. Nicodeme Mugisho-Demu, who runs the International Medical Graduates-Waste Prevention Network and was a physician in his home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo before moving to Canada.
In response to the pandemic, governments at local, provincial, and national levels have launching a full-court press to recruit and retain all the help they can get – including immigrants and healthcare professionals trained abroad. A number of recruitment portals have been launched to help employers like hospitals, shelters, and long term care centers connect with healthcare professionals and volunteers. Ontario’s Workforce Matching Portal is the province’s effort to provide resources and support where it is needed most and specifically calls out IEHPs who are not currently registered to practice by a regulatory college in Ontario. Ontario Long Term Care Association’s Portal is desperately seeking those with experience to work as personal support workers (PSWs). And nationally, the Government of Canada ran a COVID-19 Volunteer Recruitment Campaign seeking volunteers across Canada to assist with case tracking, contact tracing, data collection and reporting, among many other needs.
But unless reimagined and reviewed, there will continue to be common barriers that are too great to overcome for IEHPs attempting to find commensurate employment. One of these barriers is the arduous re-licensing process. “You can’t practice in a regulated health profession without a license,” says Atlin, “The purpose of rigorous licensing requirements is to protect public safety. At the same time, there is a legislative requirement for Fair Access. If we want qualified immigrant health professionals to be able to use their skills in Canada, we need the requirements and the process itself to ensure both public safety and fair access. To that end, we need to provide sufficient, affordable, and timely access to all the elements of the assessment process so IEHPs can move quickly to meet requirements or to fill any specific gaps.” Atlin goes on to say that while there have been significant efforts to reduce barriers, the costs involved for re-licensing and the lack of availability of spots for required medical residencies and nursing bridging programs still present obstacles.
The willingness of many of Canada’s IEHPs to run toward the fire and help their new home cope with the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted their commitment to their field and to saving lives. It has also put the issue of their wasted skills back on the front burner for the first time in many years. Perhaps the time is now to leverage the renewed profile of IEHPS to forward a national conversation about the changes needed to the healthcare system to better make use the skills and talents of immigrant healthcare professionals already here in the province and country.
“The pandemic has laid bare many of the weak links our healthcare system. Yet, it has also brought a renewed sense of possibility for IEHPs,” says Atlin, “We should be using this momentum to test new ways to scale the kinds of assessment, bridging and integration strategies that work, and putting them to use in new settings like long term care and public health.”
TRIEC will be sharing a series of profiles of internationally educated healthcare professionals who have stepped up for the communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Watch for these on our blog and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn to receive the latest news.
 Labour Force Survey 2017;