She would like to be a nurse, but an average of 94% was not enough to get into the program

Abby Poffenroth spent her high school years on one thing: becoming a nurse.

When she graduated last spring with an average of 94 percent, Poffenroth had never imagined she would not make it to the program at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS

“I knew it was pretty competitive, but I did not realize it was as competitive as it was until I got the letter that I was not accepted,” said Poffenroth, 18, who is from Antigonish.

“I had my thoughts so set on it … I was not really thinking of other options.”

Nova Scotia’s desperate need for nurses makes some people question why the province is not just educating more people like Poffenroth, especially since those who come from the province are more likely to stay and work.

In July, Nova Scotia Health said the total vacancy for nurses had hit 20 percent.

Poffenroth is now taking an alternative program at St. FX University in hopes of switching to nursing later in his studies. (The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Tim Houston has said it is an option being considered, but the solution is more complicated than it sounds.

This is because the staffing shortages they have to fill limit the number of students that can be trained, as the programs contain clinical components on the job. Clinical placements require the supervision of working nurses who are already overtaxed. Nurses who work double shifts in wards with a shortage of staff are unlikely to take on the supervision of a student.

Last week, Houston announced that the province guaranteed all Nova Scotia nurses a job for the next five years. The province estimates that there are 700 nursing graduates a year.

At that time, he was asked to increase school capacity. He replied that problems finding clinical spots must be resolved before the province can commit to training more people.

“I think we need to make sure the product we offer is the best it can be,” he said. “Then increased enrollment in that product … is part of the long-term solution, so it’s definitely something we want to do.”

Do not claim a problem

Poffenroth is one of four Nova Scotians who spoke to CBC News after being rejected by nursing programs in the province due to intense competition. The others did not want their names published for fear it would affect their chances when they search again.

They pointed out that the significant shortage of nurses in the province is not caused by lack of interest in the area.

St. FX did not respond to further requests from CBC News regarding the number of applications it receives for the program.

But the tough competition is not just in Antigonish.

When Poffenroth did not reach St. FX, she tried to submit her name to Nova Scotia Community College’s practical nursing program, only to discover there is a two-year waiting list.

4: 1 applications

NSCC estimates that there are on average four qualified applicants for each vacancy.

“It’s a popular program, no doubt,” said Roxanne Williams, head of the School of Health and Human Services at NSCC, which includes the practical nursing program.

Nursing is offered at 10 locations through NSCC. Of those, eight new streams start every two years.

Williams urged anyone wishing to take the program to at least get their name on the waiting list, noting that the numbers fluctuate.

New pitches in Cape Breton, Yarmouth

The province is beginning to see an increase in the number of students being educated. In July, the former Liberal government permanently added 70 new seats in Cape Breton and Yarmouth to help those from rural areas study closer to home.

Eight of these sites were for Dalhousie University’s Yarmouth campus.

Former Health Minister Zach Churchill announced an expansion of nursing programs at the CBU and Dalhousie’s Yarmouth campus last summer. (Communication Nova Scotia)

Dalhousie University said the nursing program is one of the most competitive with 192 places in Halifax and 33 now in Yarmouth.

Cape Breton University also fills up fast every year. Because of this, the school said it offers support to students who fail in an attempt to help them be accepted the following year.

Both Dalhousie and the NSCC said any expansion of the programs would depend on the province and the health staff’s willingness to help with the expanded training needs.

Williams said a problem finding clinical locations at the beginning of the pandemic has since been resolved.

“We are always in communication with the government and our industry partners,” Williams said. “The number of seats is always evolving.”

Dalhousie University’s nursing program is one of the most competitive at the institution. (Carolyn Ray / CBC)

For students like Poffenroth, this means taking an alternative path and considering other options for safety’s sake. She is now at St. FX and studies human kinetics.

She hopes it will keep the door open for a later entry into nursing when she applies again, saying the desperate need for nurses is extra motivation for her to enter the field.

“Not getting in made me guess at things,” she said. “But it also made me realize that this is still what I want to do no matter what.”

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