Toronto (April 15, 2021) – A project by University Heath Network's newest research institute aims to future-proof Canada's personal support workers (PSWs) against emerging health crises, while levelling out some of the inequities PSWs face compared to other health professions.

The Institute for Education Research (TIER), supported by a grant from Future Skills Centre and a network of healthcare partners, is creating education resources to support PSWs in providing safe, effective care, as well as advocacy tools to help health system leaders and other health professionals understand how important PSWs are to patient care. The project builds on an online training platform and curriculum developed with Women's College Hospital's Centre for Ambulatory Care Education (CACE).

"Personal support workers are overworked, underpaid and undervalued within our health system. This pandemic has highlighted just how important they are, and just how front line they are," says Stella Ng, project lead and an education scientist with TIER, CIPE, CACE, and the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute. She adds that Canadian PSWs are predominantly women, and in urban centres are often racialized, and are far behind other health professions in terms of access to professional development and safety resources.

"PSWs are often seen as support and not healthcare, but they are a vital part of healthcare. They're often the first people to notice a new sign or symptom in their patients," Ng adds.

In partnership with VHA Home HealthCare, Unity Health Toronto, Centre for Ambulatory Care Education (CACE) at Women's College Hospital, The Rekai Centres, the the University of Toronto's Centre for Interprofessional Education and the Michener School of Continuing Education, TIER is designing an online, evidence-informed education module. The curriculum immerses PSWs and other care professionals in realistic simulations — featuring real frontline PSWs based on encounters when providing care and support to older adults.

Future Skills Centre is investing just over $183,000 in this one-year project to expand the existing curriculum, adding modules on infection prevention and control, the basics of COVID-19 for PSWs, and wellness and resilience.

Key to this project, the team will also foster change for PSWs by creating resources to educate organizational leaders and other professionals on how they can support PSWs amidst the systemic and structural challenges they face on the job every day. In fact, Ng says many of these leaders asked for these advocacy resources in their letters of support for the project.

TIER Director Nikki Woods says putting this much emphasis on PSW continuing education is rare, and it's a testament to the project partners that they have raised the profile of this issue to attract research funding toward a solution. Woods says the education solution TIER can provide is what's needed now to complement systemic and technical approaches to supporting COVID-19 frontline workers, and to address some of the structural inequities that affect the health professions.

"Evidence-based education can be an incredibly powerful tool in solving our healthcare problems. This is just one example of a problem that education scientists can help to solve," says Woods. "Think about all the other work we're doing around COVID-19 that's about getting the right experts in the room to help think through and solve a problem. This is a case in which the education scientists are the experts needed."

Pedro Barata, Executive Director of the Future Skills Centre, says that delivering relevant education and professional development to PSWs is a perfect example of programs that FSC is investing in with the goal of not only upgrading skills but also providing support and interventions that address barriers.

"Canadian PSWs form the backbone of our country's health and social care system and this project launches a new partnership between them and leading organizations to address their current and future needs in a collaborative way. This is just one of the exciting shock-proofing projects that FSC is investing in to build a future playbook for shared prosperity, and help Canadian workers and businesses seize opportunities in our future economy."

Futureproofing the PSW Workforce through Education and Advocacy is funded by the Government of Canada's Future Skills Centre. Le projet est financé par le Centre des Compétences futures du gouvernement du Canada.

About TIER

Launched in 2019, TIER is one of seven institutes within the UHN Research family. Through the adoption of a unique research model, TIER@UHN welcomes researchers and partners from across the health care continuum and the university and college sectors, to provide a fulsome view on health care education. As a hub for experts to come together, incubate ideas and leverage expertise, TIER@UHN is shining a light on an under-researched field to develop the future of Canada's health care professionals.

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