A Grande Prairie, Alta., nurse hopes to alleviate the workforce shortage in her profession by furthering her education right at home.
Chantelle Gray has been a registered nurse in the city for almost a decade. But she will soon have a new set of credentials as she is nearing the end of her clinical placement in Grande Prairie to become a nurse practitioner through an online course at Athabasca University.
"I just really started to think seriously about it and be like, 'maybe you should be part of the solution to this problem,'" Gray said in an interview with CBC News.
The mother of two kids, both under three years of age, is furthering her education in the city about 450 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.
"When I was contemplating starting my nurse practitioner journey, there was really no way I could even, at that point, drop [everything] and just go study in Edmonton."
Alex Clark, the president of Athabasca University, said the online school is working with Alberta Health Services (AHS) to identify more practicum opportunities for nursing students across the province.
"Which means as much as possible, they can complete their programs as close to home as they can," Clark said in an interview with CBC.
He said the university is working with AHS on placements as far north as the town of High Level, which is 733 kilometres north of Edmonton. Clark said the new pathways to complete clinical placements are one part of overcoming a shortage of nurses.
"One of the key elements of this initiative, is it transitions [licensed practical nurses] to be more skilled RNs to better meet the nursing workforce challenges," Clark said.
Recruiting and retaining
AHS said in a statement, there are nursing education bursaries available through the Northern Alberta Development Council to recruit nurses to the area.
"The NADC bursary program provides up to $12,000 over two years and is non-repayable if nurses agree to live and work in northern Alberta for a set period," AHS spokesperson Shelly Willsey said.
United Nurses of Alberta, a union representing more than 30,000 RNs in the province, also offers up to $10,000 to help nurses relocate to rural and remote communities.
Heather Smith, union president, said she supports opportunities for nurses to expand their knowledge and credentials, but education is only one part of the solution.
"We can expand seats. We can graduate more. But if we do not have welcoming, supportive work environments for these men and women, they will not stay," Smith said in an interview.
Smith said governments, employers and unions have to work together to transform workplaces. She said that's particularly important for nurses in rural and remote settings who face their own set of challenges.
"The type of nursing that is done in rural Alberta is quite unique," Smith said. "It needs unique levels of support in terms of education to prepare them so they feel safe and comfortable treating and meeting the needs of the patients."
AHS said a critical staffing task force has been created to better understand recruitment and retention issues in the Central and North zones.
"AHS is also working with government to build our nursing workforce overall, including signing new collective agreements this year for RNs (UNA) and LPNs (AUPE)," Willsey said.
She said AHS is also working with licensing bodies to streamline the process for internationally educated nurses and working with post-secondary institutions and other programs to add new seats.
For Gray, nursing is a labour of love for her even amid the challenges of the profession.
"There's nothing that compares to ... knowing that you've touched a person's experience when they're ... really having a hard time or they're really struggling with something."