A row of over the counter medications is displayed, while a pharmacy team member with a beard and glasses and dressed in black stands behind the counter talking to a man dressed in a checkered shirt.
Boyd's Pharmasave in Halifax was the site of a Sept. 22, 2023 media conference about adding pharmacy technicians and paramedics to the 'International Graduates in Demand' stream. Credit: Yvette d'Entremont

International students pursuing careers as paramedics or pharmacy technicians in Nova Scotia may now find it easier to remain in the province after they graduate.

During a media conference at a Halifax pharmacy on Friday, Minister of Health and Wellness Michelle Thompson announced that the provincial nominee program’s ‘International Graduates in Demand’ stream is being expanded to include both professions.

“The changes we are announcing today will make it easier for some of our in-demand health care professionals to stay in Nova Scotia after they complete their training,” Thompson told reporters. 

“If you are an international student who graduates from an accredited pharmacy technician or paramedic program, public or private here in Nova Scotia, you now have a pathway to stay in Nova Scotia.”

The ‘International Graduates in Demand’ stream allows international students graduating from a post-secondary institution in Nova Scotia to apply for a work permit and permanent residency in Canada before gaining work experience. 

Paramedics and pharmacy technicians are the latest addition to a stream that’s already open to international students graduating as nurse aides, orderlies, continuing care assistants, patient service associates, and early childhood educators. 

The expansion of this program not only helps fill critical labour needs in the province, but it also provides international students with a streamlined pathway to obtain their permanent residency,” Minister of Advanced Education Brian Wong said. “International students, of course, enrich our communities and workplaces, and we want them to stay here after they graduate.”

Pharmacy technician shortage ‘extreme’

Describing the current shortage of pharmacy technicians as “extreme,” Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia (PANS) executive director Allison Bodnar told reporters there are between 250 to 300 registered pharmacy technicians in the province. 

Bodnar said the estimated need over the next 24 months “exceeds another 200.” 

I’ve got one particular pharmacy I’m thinking about right now. He’s had a posting for three years. It’s a rural pharmacy,” she said. “He would love to have a pharmacy technician.”

Bodnar said pharmacy technicians are responsible for “a good portion” of the dispensing process. A pharmacist’s role in dispensing, she explained, should be limited to the clinical aspects — ensuring a patient has the medication they require at that point in time. Technicians then ensure things like proper packaging and labelling.

But Bodnar said pharmacy technicians can also do much more. Ordering ostomy and diabetic supplies, providing injections, and conducting patient training on devices like inhalers and diabetic supplies. 

“Because we have such a lack of supply, we still have our pharmacists doing a lot of technical work in pharmacies. The packaging and whatnot that they shouldn’t be doing,” Bodnar said. 

“We need our pharmacists to be working to their full scope, doing clinical services, and the only way we can do that is to make sure our pharmacy teams, our technicians and our assistants, are fully available and trained to support that.”

Reasons behind shortage multifaceted

Last month, Bodnar was a witness during a meeting of the legislature’s standing committee on health (reported here). The meeting’s focus was the expanded scope of pharmacists.

In February, PANS and the province announced a pilot project aimed at allowing pharmacists to use their full training (scope of practice) to help provide patients with more timely access to primary health care through community pharmacy primary care clinics.

There are now 25 clinics at select sites across the province. At these locations, patients can book appointments to be treated for minor ailments (strep throat) or for chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Bodnar told reporters on Friday that since February, those pharmacy clinics have delivered more than 50,000 services. 

While she described the reasons behind the pharmacy technician shortage as multifaceted, Bodnar did note the profession is “in its infancy,” not having existed before 2013. She said wages have also been low, and licensing difficult. In addition, current student enrollment is too low to keep up with the demand, and programs require that students study in HRM. 

“We’re looking at with the schools, can we do remote programs? Can we have them do their lab work in community pharmacies so that these students can stay and live in rural Nova Scotia,” Bodnar asked. 

“So we’re trying to unearth every opportunity here so that we can have a steady stream of graduates to support the profession.”

Ability to scale up paramedic training spots

Emergency Medical Care Inc.’s executive director of provincial operations Charbel Daniel said their organization was pleased to see paramedics added to the international graduate stream. He said there’s room to expand paramedic training should there be great interest from international students wanting to join the stream.

“I do know that we have the ability to scale up when and where needed,” Daniel said. “So if we have an abundance of international students coming in, we can scale accordingly to make sure that we can accommodate as needed.”

In July, the legislature’s standing committee on health heard from the union representing the province’s paramedics about issues facing that workforce, including staffing and retention numbers.

A provincial news release notes applicants to the program must be enrolled in programs that are at least 30 weeks in length. Students need to complete at least 50% of their program in Nova Scotia. 

In addition, graduates from Nova Scotia Community College and private career colleges that offer these programs may qualify for the province’s ‘International Graduates in Demand’ stream.

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. This is a good plan.
    Maybe we could do this for construction trades people too. A severe shortage exists. That coupled with high demand will increase the rates these trades will command. Basic economics.