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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


RPN: 'The bedside nurse'

By David Chilton
Special to the Toronto Sun

Just as there are horses for courses, so are there courses for nurses. In fact, every one of Ontario's public colleges offers the training necessary to become a registered practical nurse.
Young Evans Registered Practical Nurses Association of Ontario

The diploma program takes two years to complete and the profession is regulated by the College of Nurses of Ontario, which also regulates registered nurses in the province.

Joanne Young Evans, executive director of the Registered Practical Nurses Association of Ontario, says there are about 32,000 RPNs in the province, and a nurse is a nurse if she (or he) is registered with the college. However, Young Evans takes care to point out that there are differences between an RPN and an RN.

RPNs require a two-year college diploma rather than a four-year nursing degree, and they don't work on highly complex or medically unstable cases. RNs care for those patients, and it's RNs who become, because of the depth and breadth of their training, unit managers and supervisors. Nevertheless, an RPN can do at least 70 per cent or more of what an RN can do, Young Evans continues, describing the job as "the bedside nurse."

RPN programs in Toronto are always oversubscribed, even though admission numbers are on the healthy side. The bare minimum for admission to any college is a high school diploma. Tuition costs about $1,800 a year.

Rosemary Watkins, co-ordinator of the program at Humber, says the college takes 160 full time students each September and another 50 part time (who have to study for almost four years).

At Centennial College, program co-ordinator Patricia Brown says 120 students enter every fall with a further 60 starting the following January. There's no part time study at Centennial, nor is there any at Durham College. That school's program co-ordinator, Jean Jackson, says about 90 students will be offered places this September.

RPN students are overwhelmingly female, but their age range varies considerably. "We get everyone from high school students to grandmothers," says Watkins, whose opinion Brown and Jackson share.

The colleges also attract students whose backgrounds are as diverse as their ages. "We have a lot of students who come from outside the country. A lot of our students, especially those from Asia, are already doctors. We have at least 20 doctors from China this year," Brown says.

One of those doctors is Shimei Fei, who came to Canada three years ago. She says in China she studied medicine for five years and worked as a pediatrician.

Fei, a first year student, says one of the reasons she took the RPN program is because there's a shortage of nurses, and thus the job prospects look good. She hopes to work in long-term care upon graduation.

Fei is right about there being a shortage of nurses, but there are a few clouds on the horizon for RPNs. "(Graduating students) don't necessarily get full-time jobs," Jackson cautions. She estimates that half of them will find a full-time position and the other half will land part-time jobs.

Pay is something else to consider, too. Jackson quotes a community care survey of RPNs' full-time starting salaries that pegs the average at just over $33,000 a year. The survey minimum was barely $16,000, although the maximum was a handsome $58,000.

There are also differences in where RPNs work -- or can work. Young Evans says 52 per cent of RPNs are employed in hospitals, but Brown notes they're still tough for the registered practical nurse to get into and that at least one of them -- The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto -- doesn't hire RPNs at all.

"The jobs," says Brown with some finality, "are in long-term care."

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