05/12/2015 12:44 EDT | Updated 05/12/2016 05:59 EDT

Nova Scotia universities to offer new accelerated nursing programs

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia is looking to reduce the time it takes to get trained nurses on the job as the province struggles to keep up with the pace of retirements in its health care system.

As part of a new $4.7 million nursing strategy announced Tuesday, the three Nova Scotia universities that grant nursing degrees will offer a common curriculum and accelerated programs in order to boost the province's pool of trained nurses.

According to the Health Department, 669 nurses left the system last year with about half that number due to retirements. The latest figures show 197 registered nursing and 88 licensed practical nursing positions are vacant.

Health Minister Leo Glavine said the post-secondary changes are seen as key in a province that is currently hiring more than 90 per cent of the 400 nurses who graduate each year.

Glavine couldn't give projections, but expressed optimism the changes would help staffing levels.

"We feel that we are going to meet the requirements across the province for nurses for the next decade and that's when the greatest demand will be there," said Glavine.

Under the changes Dalhousie University, St. Francis Xavier University and Cape Breton University would offer programs with staggered graduations in the winter, spring and fall in order to allow the health system to hire throughout the year.

The schools would also offer an accelerated program that would recognize previous science qualifications and cut the time to earn a degree from four to two years. As well, students coming out of high school with required science courses could complete their degree program in just three years.

The number of specialty programs would also be increased to train operating room nurses and nurses who work in critical care, mental health and addictions.

Included in the overall funding for the strategy is $1.4 million for a mentoring program that would pay experienced nurses to spend dedicated time training new nurses. There is also $1.2 million for a co-op placement program for student nurses targeting the places and disciplines where nurses are most needed.

There are also smaller sums aimed at professional development and injury prevention.

Andrea Boyd-White, the director of nursing at St. Martha's Regional Hospital in Antigonish, said the most significant change for the province's rural hospitals is the expanded 13-week co-op program.

She said with an aging workforce, having ready trained nurses with a clinical background out of university is "priceless" to the system.

"It makes a difference between us being able to use them within four weeks or waiting 16, which is what we were doing."

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses Union, said she was pleased with the mentoring program, which will enable nurses to spend 80 per cent of their time on their patients and 20 per cent on training new nurses.

Hazelton also said the educational changes in the strategy should help address nursing shortages over time.

"If the employers work with the unions about issues affecting nurses and use the money earmarked for that I believe it (the strategy) will be successful," she said.