The head of the province's nurses union says government would be wiser to invest in more nursing seats than pursue international graduates.
"We don't have a lot of experience in regards to internationally educated nurses," said Debbie Forward, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses' Union (NLNU).
Health Minister Jerome Kennedy told nurses gathered at a conference Monday that the province must recruit more nurses to improve the quality of their lives.
"The negotiations weren't only about money, it was about quality of life. Nurses need time off to go to their children's events ... to plan holidays. The problem with the shortage of nurses was the inability to access that time off in a timely manner," Kennedy told the conference. "So, as we continue to grow the nursing profession to recruit and retain nurses, hopefully your workplace, the quality of your workplace environment will improve and those impediments will hopefully be eliminated. These are the kinds of things we became aware of last year and continue to be aware of."
And one of the ways the province is trying to recruit new nurses is to appeal to international graduates.
"We are currently looking at recruiting international nurses and are actively trying to do that," Kennedy said outside the two-day nursing leadership conference.
Forward noted employers went to India to recruit in January and February, but she said there are some 100-200 qualified potential nursing students from the province who can't get into nursing school here because there are not enough seats.
"We know that if conditions are right, new graduates want to stay here," she said in a phone interview.
While there have been increased seats in recent years, Forward acknowledged it's not simple to accommodate more students.
Besides cost, the physical infrastructure is tight and there is need for more faculty. There are currently 291 nursing students combined admitted each year across three bachelor of nursing sites - one in Corner Brook and two in St. John's.
But if that investment is made, she said the end result will be young people from the province who have more of a liklihood to stay over the long term.
Among doctors who have been recruited from other countries, there is a tendency to move once they get their Canadian licences.
"We probably would have a better chance of keeping Newfoundlanders and Labradorians here than keeping nurses from India," Forward said.
Qualified candidates who don't get into nursing school because there aren't enough seats will either choose another profession or go elsewhere for training, Forward said.
She said the province will have to ensure it is prepared to integrate foreign-trained nurses through recognition of different cultures and language, not only for the nurses that come here, but for all nurses in the system.
"We have to make sure we do everything we can in our power to integrate them in a very positive way," Forward said.
Since government has started recruiting internationally, the number of foreign-trained nurses applying for nursing licences has shot up, according to the Association of Registered Nurses of Newfoundland and Labrador, the licensing body. At last count it was nearing 150 applicants.
International appliants must provide proof of education and a second language program, as well as their licence in the country they are coming from.
They are granted an interim licence which limits their duties, and have eight months and a limited number of chances to pass the Canadian Registered Nurses exam. If they fail the exam on their first try they lose their interim licence. The association reviews all international education programs and recommends to government areas which have similar requirements to Newfoundland in order to reduce the transition process.
Kennedy signaled Monday he wants to know about difficulties that affect the ability to retain nurses.
Last week, concerns were raised in the media about nurses trying to transfer out of emergency to new positions and not being able to because of the shortage.
"Hopefully, by working with the nurses' union and by working with NAPE and CUPE, who represent the licensed practical nurses, we will be able to address their issues on an ongoing basis," Kennedy told reporters.
He received a chuckle from the crowd during his address when he commented on the volume of e-mails he received from individual nurses during the contract negotiations with the nurses' union.
"I was very impressed with how unified they were as a group," Kennedy said afterwards.
"What I hear - this is anecdotal - the agreement we reached last year satisfied the nurses in terms of monetary issues and we still have to work on some of the other issues such as quality of life ... essentially they reached the goal they had in negotiations which was essentially to get to a stage of Atlantic parity or greater."
During his address, he thanked the nurses for their professionalism and patience and said he is looking forward to hearing their recommendations.
Meanwhile, Kennedy told reporters he isn't aware of anything new in talks with the province's doctors, but noted it's the Treasury Department that's conducting the negotiations. Those negotiations have been contentious with Premier Danny Williams weeks ago describing the demands as "through the roof" and the doctors since then holding media sessions to highlight problems in health care.
But doctors have indicated they too are just seeking Atlantic parity for all doctors.