U of M set to train more respiratory therapists


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The University of Manitoba plans to double the size of its respiratory-therapy program to graduate more professionals who can treat patients with long COVID and other diseases.

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The University of Manitoba plans to double the size of its respiratory-therapy program to graduate more professionals who can treat patients with long COVID and other diseases.

Upon the request of the province, U of M’s College of Rehabilitation Sciences added four seats to its annual intake of bachelor of respiratory therapy candidates this fall.

A university proposal to further expand the program — to 40 spots from 20, as of the start of the 2024-25 academic year — is under review.

“COVID highlighted the strong need for RTs,” said Reg Urbanowski, the dean who oversees the three-year degree program in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences. “We had, in fact, during (the height of the pandemic) been asked to consider early graduation for our respiratory therapy students so they could get out there, and we did.”

Manitoba has 360 registered respiratory therapists and almost all of them staff emergency departments and intensive care units.

These front-line workers care for patients who are on ventilators and undertake lung testing, among countless duties.

Health-care insiders say burnout and an increase in retirements, owing to the stress associated with mid-pandemic care, greatly affected the workforce because there were many unfilled positions across the province prior to March 2020.

“Overall, the workload increased beyond capacity, when capacity was low to begin with,” said Cory Campbell, president of the Manitoba Association of Registered Respiratory Therapists, which is the regulatory college.

Campbell, who also teaches at the U of M, said an increase in graduates will ensure more appropriate staffing so there is “a safe number of ventilated patients per respiratory therapist” because workers are stretched much thinner than the ideal 5:1 ratio.

Not only did the arrival of COVID-19 overload the health-care system and place “a tremendous amount of pressure” on these specialized professionals, but Urbanowski said it also highlighted the danger of not having respiratory therapists operating at a full scope of practice.

The dean said it’s his hope that a significant scale-up in trainee seats will ensure more graduates can work across the system — on teams in acute care, as well as primary care, community care and rehabilitation services.

Given there is typically a waitlist for the existing degree program, despite limited advertising for it, he is not at all concerned about recruiting future respiratory therapists.

U of M is the only post-secondary institution in the province with a respiratory therapy program, and it’s the sole English-language school in Canada that offers a three-year bachelor option. Students are required to obtain a number of prerequisite arts and science credits before they can apply to the specialized stream.

Following a lengthy internal review process, U of M’s senior academic governing body endorsed the college’s plans to graduate more health-care professionals during a meeting on Dec. 7.

The expansion is subject to government approval and both one-time and new ongoing funding to support it. Should it be finalized, U of M will have to hire more instructors and purchase additional training equipment.

A spokesperson for the advanced education department confirmed the proposal is being assessed with Manitoba Health.

But as far as the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals is concerned, there is no time to waste.

“Even with funding, this program is over four years away from having an impact on the respiratory therapy staffing crisis. We need the government to prioritize recruitment and retention immediately,” union president Jason Linklater said in a statement.

Linklater said that is not possible with a contract that expired more than four years ago.


Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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