Answering the call

The new Centre for Professional Advancement offers customized, accelerated on-demand training to help hospitals respond to staff shortages

Targeted, rapid on-demand training for health care workers through Mohawk College’s new Centre for Professional Advancement (CPA) is helping hospitals locally, provincially and nationally cope with ongoing staff shortages and care backlogs amid pandemic recovery.

The CPA is the formalized structure that has resulted from dozens of training partnerships with health organizations over the last several years.

Project by project since the COVID-19 crisis began, the CPA within the School of Health and Community Services has worked to close skills gaps and increase capacity in the workforce through a new model of on-the-job training that prioritizes innovative, responsive, accelerated and specialized instruction to address fast-emerging and future employer needs.

“This came out of a desire to respond to an acute situation in our community. We needed solutions and this was an innovative way to help solve problems,” says Wendy Lawson, Dean of the School of Health and Community Services.

“We recognized that there are challenges facing our community in health care that cannot be ignored. This was catalyzed by the pandemic but not caused by it. The crisis forced everyone to be innovative.”

The CPA provides flexible, high-quality learning solutions online, in-person, or using a blended approach with a mix of self-study and facilitated instruction. In collaboration with employer partners, Mohawk’s team of curriculum developers and subject matter experts develop and deliver customized training solutions designed to address specific competencies and desired learning outcomes.

Mohawk College faculty then support the delivery of clinical training by clinical educators and mentors at the learner’s home site.

“What makes this approach transformative is that it is a real partnership with the hospitals and clinical employers to create something specifically for them that answers their needs,” says Associate Dean Nicole Barron.

Training has been delivered to cohorts as small as five and as large as 138. The team at the CPA continues to work with partners and governments to identify labour gaps that can be addressed through laddered training, extended roles, skills specializations and bridging.

“This is a sustainable and scalable model of training that contributes to a highly skilled and agile workforce. Our partners are committed to this and the successes of this approach are clear,” says Lawson.

“The need has been most acute in health care, but this model can be applied in any sector with human resources challenges. Mohawk College and its executive team has been universally supportive of this vision.”

The model is now gaining attention from health care providers across Canada.

“It helps employers create a culture of learning and career progression,” says Barron.

Training can be delivered in a full-time or part-time model. In some cases, learners get a leave and are paid to take the training.

“That really removes the barriers to ongoing training for many employees. The earn-while-you-learn model is a best practice that we recommend to our partners.”

The partnership with the CPA has helped HHS take a logical approach to filling areas of need, says Leslie Gauthier, Vice President of Clinical Support Services and Surgery.

“In the case of MRI technicians, a radiology tech has had to take a year off work to get the training that will give them an extra couple of dollars an hour. It didn’t make sense.”

Ten HHS employees took the MRI training – paid for by the hospital – that finished in late spring.

Gauthier says there are needs in many areas, including anaesthesia assistant and pharmacy technician, that can be addressed through the approach at the CPA.

“We are learning as we go and correcting course where we need to but this is a great partnership that will help us address our needs.”

The strengths of the approach are that Mohawk can work with a partner anywhere at any time, can offer the accelerated training to multiple organizations at once, and it addresses both immediate needs and long-term human resources planning.

The Operating Room Assistant (ORA) clinical training was delivered simultaneously in five labs over two Saturdays to staff from six different hospitals. It is a common role in the United States but it is a pilot in Ontario.

OR Assistants are not intended to replace RNs or RPNs during surgery but by playing a supporting role and acting as an additional resource in the OR, including setting up the operating room for the patient, ensuring all the tools are sterile and in place and handing tools to the doctor during the surgery, they are able to increase the capacity of the RNs to do the highly skilled and regulated nursing work.

Kate Cook and Dulce Isorena from the Greater Niagara General Hospital were among the ORA trainees. Both worked in the hospital’s medical device processing department that handles sterilization of instruments used in the OR.

They each jumped at the chance to add to their skills and take on a new challenge. It was an intense, exhausting experience.

Over 10 weeks, they took nine courses and had to achieve a minimum of 80 per cent in order to get the ORA job. They studied 14 to 16 hours a day at least six days a week and they still study each surgery the night before. But it’s worth it.

“It was exhilarating to be in the OR for the first time,” says Cook.

“I really love doing this,” says Isorena, even though she worried she couldn’t stomach being in a surgery. “Instead, I was intrigued and curious.”

OR manager Jen Law says 50 per cent of the OR staff at Niagara Health’s three sites are eligible for retirement within the next five years.

CPA training won’t fill the gap on its own but it will allow more flexibility in handling human resources challenges.

“This is such a great collaboration between Mohawk, HHS and us. Everyone is committed to facing down the challenges and doing what is needed and doing it quickly.”

The pandemic deepened an existing talent crisis in health care, says Jen Plant, Director, Professional Practice and Ambulatory Care at Queensway Carleton Hospital in Ottawa. Critical care nursing has been particularly hard hit.

Mohawk’s accelerated critical care nursing program is designed for RNs looking to prepare for a career in a critical care setting or those currently employed in a critical care setting who wish to improve their knowledge and skills. This 300-hour program aligns with specifications of the Critical Care Services Ontario and will also prepare nurses to challenge the Canadian Nurses Association national certification exam in critical care.

“Queenston Carleton Hospital has worked in partnership with Mohawk College to leverage the flexible, hybrid model to combine didactic learning with clinical mentorship to provide a wonderful foundation to nurses working as part of a skilled critical care team. The innovative design of this program integrates the online course and clinical experience through self-directed, asynchronous virtual learning, allowing students to integrate new knowledge into their practice on an ongoing basis.”

The hospital has a seven-point plan to stabilize its workforce through recruitment and retention, says Plant.

“Increasing opportunities for mentorship and professional development is key to our strategy. The accelerate critical care program will provide learners with the advanced knowledge, specialized skills and abilities to practise competently and safely within a fantastic team.”