Sheila Leano-Cunanan and Navdeep Kaur

Sheila Leano-Cunanan says nursing is in her blood.

 “Through my mom, I saw nursing as being a hard job, dealing with so many different people and circumstances, and also rewarding to help those who are in need and to serve humanity,” she says. 

Fifteen years ago, Leano-Cunanan followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a nurse working in the paediatrics and Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU) units of a tertiary hospital in the Philippines, where she was born and raised. Five years into her career, she immigrated to Canada, but it was clear it would be a long process to get her license to practice nursing in Ontario.

She worked as a Personal Support Worker (PSW) while continuing to study, completing courses towards her nursing licensure and becoming a first-time mother.

In 2020, Leano-Cunanan learned about a program for internationally-educated nurses that would allow her to reach her goal – and ultimately find herself coming full-circle, working at Unity Health Toronto’s paediatrics and NICU units.

Statistics Canada recently reported that vacancies in the health-care sector are at record highs, with over two-thirds of those positions in nursing roles. The Supervised Practice Experience Partnership (SPEP) program is an initiative launched by the College of Nurses of Ontario (CNO) and Ontario Health to help address the health human resource needs of the province.

The SPEP program provides paid, supervised work placements for Internationally Educated Nursing (IEN) interns going through the registration process to become nurses. These placements, created in collaboration with hospitals and other CNO-approved practice settings in Ontario, are meant to help candidates complete their evidence of practice and, in some cases, language proficiency registration requirements.

At Unity Health, the program requires IEN interns to complete 335 hours of supervised practice over a three-month period. IEN interns may be seeking registration as a Registered Nurse (RN) or Registered Practical Nurse (RPN). The SPEP program is one of several initiatives the organization is undertaking to fill clinical staffing vacancies.

So far, Unity Health has been able to employ nine of the internationally educated nursing interns who have completed their placements in the organization.

“It’s a long journey that internationally educated nurses have to go through to be licensed in Ontario,” says Julie McShane, Clinical Educator of Nursing Professional Practice and coordinator of the SPEP program at Unity Health. “It takes a lot of time and there are a number of hurdles they have to overcome.”

“This evidence of practice is really the last piece they have to meet to be licensed here in Ontario, so we want them to have the best experience possible. This has meant collaboration with our unit managers, human resources team, clinical educators and practice team.”

McShane says Unity Health has incorporated a somewhat unique approach to try to match IEN intern candidates with their past clinical area of expertise or one they have a strong interest in. The hope is that interns enjoy their experience with the organization and decide to apply to fill vacant positions.

Originally from India, Navdeep Kaur, an RPN intern candidate in the program, says she was excited to be placed on the Cardiology unit at St. Michael’s Hospital, as she wanted to follow in the footsteps of one of her college professors.

“I worked in a charitable hospital back home for two years where they don’t have much of a budget,” she says. “At first, before getting to know how health care works here, my confidence was close to zero but my preceptor was so sweet and worked with me and explained how to do things and now I feel I’m at 100 per cent.”

McShane says the involvement of preceptors has been a critical part of the program. Preceptors are paired with an IEN intern for a specific time period to assist and support learning experiences and orient the IEN intern to the practice placement.

Amita Ganeshan, an RPN on the 2L Medicine unit at St. Joseph’s Health Centre, says her passion for teaching drove her to volunteer to be a preceptor to an IEN intern on her unit.

“I focused on trying to give information about the nursing culture at St. Joseph’s and orienting our intern to the unit,” Ganeshan says. “We sat down together from the beginning so I could understand her nursing experience and skills from back home, and I let her know she should feel empowered to speak up and ask questions at any time.”

“Now she’s licensed and was able to get a job on our unit!”

For Leano-Cunanan, her nursing journey in Ontario has brought her to the same clinical care area where she began her career in the Philippines. She completed her internship placement on the paediatrics and NICU units at St. Joseph’s and was hired there as an RN.

She says the camaraderie and team work she witnessed on the paediatrics and NICU units made her internship enjoyable and has made her grateful to join the team. 

“At certain times through this journey, I sometimes thought about giving up on nursing because of the pressures of life, being an immigrant, trying to provide for my family,” Leano-Cunanan says. “To others going through the same thing I would say, if nursing is your passion, just never give up and be strong for your dreams.”

By: Danielle Pereira