Global recognition for undergraduate's pandemic health ethics research


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By Kim McCready

It was a fourth-year course assignment on the implications of health-care decisions during the pandemic that laid the foundation for Kayla Gauthier’s research paper, titled "Unskilled Workers: Saving Grace or Detriment to Canada’s Nursing Crisis in the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic? An Ethical Analysis".

Gauthier, then an undergraduate student in the School of Health Studies, submitted her paper to the internationally acclaimed competition, the Global Undergraduate Awards, on the advice of her course instructor. Her paper was recently announced as a Regional Winner (best submission from the US and Canada) in the category of Nursing, Midwifery & Allied Healthcare.

Already grappling with a shortage of health-care workers, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the labour challenge in hospitals, as health-care professionals experienced overwhelming exhaustion and burnout. Gauthier's paper examined the thought-provoking question that arose during the pandemic – is it ethical to employ unskilled workers to provide direct care during a health-care crisis?

According to Gauthier, ethical analysis plays a crucial role in health care by offering a framework for evaluating the trade-offs inherent in decision-making. It provides a lens through which benefits and risks are assessed, helping determine which choices align with best principles and practices.

“It started with word-of-mouth rumours that Toronto hospitals were in a state of distress and willing to take anyone off the street to provide care,” said Gauthier. “I scanned the news and found an article about hospitals in Quebec that had actually proposed hiring completely unskilled workers with no previous health-care training to provide care, specifically to replace operating room nurses.”

The outcry from nursing unions, doctors and employees ensured that the policy was never enacted, but it still raised a big question that had not been answered before.

Gauthier’s ethical analysis determined that while hiring completely unskilled workers as a substitute for trained nurses is not ethically justifiable, there is merit in employing them in roles such as nursing assistants or health-care aides during the acute phase of a pandemic.

“What the award means to me is that my paper and ideas can have an impact and resonate with people around the world. My analysis has the potential to help with future pandemic preparedness,” she said.

All highly commended and winning paper authors are invited to attend the Undergraduate Awards Global Summit. Gauthier is looking forward to attending the four-day conference in Dublin where she will attend panels and lectures from world-renowned academics and explore opportunities for future collaborations and research.

Kayla Gauthier, Master's student in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (Health Promotion field)

This trip will not be the first time Gauthier’s academic journey takes her beyond the classroom. She had the unique opportunity to explore the practical dimensions of her field by travelling to Scandinavia, as a Global Skills Opportunity (GSO) recipient during a course on aging globally.

“I always seek out opportunities where I get to meet people from a variety of backgrounds because it really helps me develop a well-rounded understanding of our world,” Gauthier said.

GSO is a government-funded pilot program aimed at increasing international education for underrepresented populations in Canada. Gauthier now serves as a GSO Champion and has spoken to politicians and leaders of institutions from across Canada about the impact of this program and it’s dedication to promoting equity in studying abroad for students with disabilities, indigenous students and those with low incomes.

“Since the inception of the program over 6000 Canadians have participated by studying abroad and 75% of those are from underrepresented populations,” Gauthier said. “As of 2025, the pilot project ends. I hope to demonstrate the importance of this funding and of reducing the barriers for these underrepresented populations to study abroad.”

Gauthier's commitment to health equity as well as health ethics is closely intertwined with her overarching goal to enhance health care on a broad scale. While her immediate focus remains within Canada, she is acutely aware of the global implications in her field, particularly regarding health disparities.

Currently, Gauthier is enrolled in Western University’s Health and Rehabilitation Science program in the health promotion field under the supervision of professor Maxwell Smith. She asserts that public health ethics has the potential not only to reduce risks but also to strengthen policies, working towards a world marked by resilient health and equitable access to care.