Half of Quebec nursing students fail September licensing exam, probe launched

MONTREAL — Quebec nursing student Jennifer Gunville says she was left in shock after she learned she had failed her licensing exam.

Gunville, 30, is among the 51 per cent of nursing students in the province who took the September exam and failed to get the minimum passing grade — 55 per cent.

The unusually low success rate is causing concern for the head of a major nurse union, who fears the results will only aggravate the health worker shortage across the province.

"First of all, I am very sad," Gunville said in a recent interview. "I mean, I have worked in the field since 2013 as an auxiliary nurse. And I am a very good nurse. It was all very shocking."

Auxiliary nurses in Quebec work under supervision, and Gunville hoped to become a full nurse after she received a nursing diploma in June from junior college Cégep de Saint-Jérôme. She said that after speaking with other students in her program, she was far from the only one shocked and frustrated.

The independent commissioner who oversees access to Quebec professional orders launched an investigation after he received 27 complaints last week about the exam.

"I made the decision to open an investigation last Friday after seeing all of the news reports and getting all of the complaints," commissioner André Gariépy said in a recent interview.

Quebec's professional nursing order — Ordre professionnel des infirmières et infirmiers du Québec — has blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for the dismal results and has stated publicly that the exam was unchanged for the last couple of years.

The preceding exam, in March 2022, had a 71 per cent success rate, while the exam in September 2021 had an 81 per cent pass rate. The order of nurses says students can take the test up to three times. The next test is in March.

In a news release on Tuesday, the professional order said it would offer "additional measures" to support students in their path to being admitted into the profession. "However, the relaxation of the criteria is not being considered, in the perspective of protecting the public."

During an interview later in the day,Luc Mathieu, president of the nursing order, said students who failed the exam received feedback about what they need to work on, when they got their results online. "The schools will also receive feedback to give students a general idea of the areas where students need more support."

As well, Mathieu said, the order will contact supervising nurses in hospitals and inform them what students should focus on so that the students are better prepared for the next exam. The order, Mathieu said, will also offer exam preparation sessions to all of the students who failed.

Gunville said she doesn't believe that the high failure rate is related to the pandemic. "In my opinion, the exam was clearly revised. They are saying it's the same, but that is just not possible."

However, Mathieu said many of the questions were the same as the previous exam in the spring, while others were taken from a question bank. All of the questions, he added, were developed by practising nurses and by university and junior college teachers.

Isabelle Dumaine, president of a union representing Quebec nurses — the Fédération de la Santé du Québec — said she doesn't know why September's failure rate is so high, but she said she doesn't think it's entirely related to the pandemic.

"To blame the pandemic … obviously, it did not help the situation, and of course, made the training more difficult, but I think it needs to be looked into thoroughly," Dumaine said in a recent interview.

The union, Dumaine said, is very worried about the effect the high failure rate will have on an already fragile health-care system, adding that it might exacerbate the ongoing nursing shortage in the province. She said the nurses order made clear that all the nursing students who failed the exam would be able to continue working in the health system under supervision.

"But our nurses are already overworked," Dumaine said. "We need people that can do the job entirely."

Marjorie Larouche, a spokesperson for the Health Department, said in an email that the exam's high failure rate will have an effect on the number of qualified nurses available, but she did not elaborate.

Gunville said she is sad she has to retake this exam, "because I was already so prepared."

"I don't even know what else I can do more that will help me for the next one."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the Office des professions had launched an investigation.