Life has changed a lot in the last few years. The pandemic has upended every aspect of society and climate change is making it difficult to plan effectively for the future. In an era of extreme unpredictability, flexibility is critical, especially in fields like healthcare.
Travel nursing isn’t a new concept, but this part of the healthcare industry is growing. Pre-pandemic, only about 3-4% of nurses were travel nurses. Today, the number has risen to 8-10%. Travel nursing has many benefits, especially during a healthcare crisis. But is it really the future of healthcare?
Travel nurses are registered nurses who work on short-term contracts to fill in staffing needs at hospitals all over the country. Depending on licensure requirements, some nurses only work in one state, while others can take contracts in multiple states.
Short-term contracts offer flexibility for nurses and hospitals alike. Nurses can gain experience in new clinical environments, explore different areas, and often get paid more than they would by working in a permanent nursing role.
During a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, flexibility in the healthcare industry is critical. Hospitals might need more staff temporarily to take care of patients during an outbreak or influx of patients, but cannot reasonably keep extra staff on after patient numbers stabilize. Travel nursing provides a solution and offers relief for overworked staff members experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue during a crisis.
Travel nurses can also help with nursing shortages across the board. When a hospital is struggling to fill open nursing roles, they can fall back on hiring travel nurses until they find the right candidate. This helps to prevent nurse burnout and ensures that patients continue to receive excellent care even when a hospital’s permanent nursing staff is overworked.
Healthcare is extremely expensive in the United States. Hospitals have to reduce costs in any way they can, which often means reducing their payroll as much as possible. Instead of paying nurses to work regardless of the number of patients coming through the door, hospitals have been reducing costs by hiring travel nurses to allow for more dynamic staffing.
Travel nurses typically cost more to hire per hour, but the hospital does not have to worry about paying their benefits or keeping them on long-term. Staffing agencies act as liaisons and provide benefits to their travel nurses while matching hospitals with nurses for short-term contracts. This type of dynamic staffing is growing in popularity as costs continue to soar.
Many nurses experience symptoms of travel fatigue and burnout. Nurses who work for hospitals on staff are often overworked, have trouble getting adequate rest due to their schedules, and struggle to maintain high standards of quality while juggling their workload. These working conditions frequently lead to burnout, which causes some nurses to eventually leave the profession, making the situation worse for the nurses who remain.
Travel nurses can get burned out too, of course, but they are more likely to get burned out on travel, not their career path. After several years of moving around every quarter, many nurses decide to plant roots and take a permanent nursing position. In the meantime, however, they can provide support for other nurses as they travel and take on some of the workload of permanent nursing staff.
Although there are many benefits of travel nursing for today’s healthcare industry, there are some downsides as well. For instance, hiring travel nurses might improve the nursing shortages at some hospitals temporarily, but it won’t increase the pool of nurses available for hire.
Travel nurses also need to be paid more than permanent nursing staff. Hospitals help to subsidize travel nurses’ expenses and typically pay them a higher wage, with travel nurses making a median salary of $84,000 per year, as opposed to $68,000 for staff nurses. It’s also not always possible to predict a hospital’s staffing needs well enough to hire travel nurses quickly when they’re needed.
Finally, the nurses who tend to be attracted to travel nursing are typically young and single. Some would avail a housing for travel nurses and some don’t mind having no fixed address for a while and they are usually strong and enthusiastic about helping where they’re needed. However, they might not be the most experienced nurses, despite the fact that most agencies require two years of clinical experience.
With all of these factors in mind, will travel nurses solve the nursing shortage? Well, the demand for more travel nurses is a symptom of the shortage, not a long-term solution. When there aren’t enough nurses to meet demand, travel nursing can help ensure that the hospitals needing the most help have access to staffing.
Travel nurses will always be needed. However, the United States needs to consider a better strategy for addressing the nursing shortage, rather than simply moving existing RNs from hospital to hospital. Making it easier for prospective nurses to attend college will be critical in solving the shortage as the population ages and we see new public health crises emerge in the coming years.