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Goodbye Travel Nursing? Hospitals Face Pressure to Cut Costs


The idea of traveling to another hospital for a short-term work assignment may soon be coming to an end, at least for hospitals in the red. A recent report from the American Hospital Association suggests that facilities could lose up to $120 billion from July 2020 to December 2020 as the pandemic lingers on. This is in addition to the $202.6 billion these facilities lost between March 2020 and June 2020.

Travel nurses typically make twice as much as full-time staff members. Facilities also have to pay service fees to the travel nursing agency, as well as recruitment, housing, and transportation costs. 

While working as a travel nurse can be a great opportunity, the pandemic has some facilities rethinking their approach to short-term staffing assignments. With limited funds, some hospitals across the country are looking to replace travel nurses with permanent staff members, so they have staff in place before the next pandemic or national health crisis.

Fun Perks or Dangerous Risks?

We tend to think of travel nursing as an exciting career opportunity, giving nurses the chance to expand their skills and see new parts of the country, but these perks have vanished at some facilities since the start of the pandemic.

Travel nursing has helped facilities large and small keep up with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those in coronavirus hotspots have been offering high wages to providers that are brave enough to work in areas with high infection rates. This has been especially true of specialized providers. In some areas, hospitals were offering ICU nurses six times what they normally make. Some facilities even offered nurses up to $10,000 a week.

While many nurses and doctors were more than willing to answer the call of duty, the pressures of working in a virus hotspot could be overwhelming for others. Many providers on their way to California, New York, Florida, Arizona, or other hard-hit areas would pack their own PPE, unsure of what they would find when they arrived for their first day of work.

Working as a travel nurse leads to more money, but it also means working long hours in an area that’s been hit hard by the coronavirus. Facilities hit with staff and PPE shortages have been some of the biggest users of travel nurses over the last six months. 

Courtney Peters was working as a travel nurse in Massachusetts during the pandemic, until she got a job offer from a local hospital in Vermont where she’s worked on and off over the last ten years. Instead of working through long shifts at a facility far from home, she decided to return to her home state, even if it meant taking a pay cut.

Peters has been a big fan of travel nursing. During assignments, she made time to try new restaurants, expand her professional network, and learn more about the healthcare industry. But now, she says, “The fun of being a travel nurse has kind of been lost in the last six months.”

She brought her own safety equipment to her most recent assignment, preparing for the worst.

“I don’t really want to put myself into the middle of that,” she says of working in a facility without proper PPE. Instead of crisscrossing the country, she’s looking forward to settling down, at least for now. For Peters, coming home was about reconnecting with her community and having access to a stable, safe working environment. 

From Temporary Assignment to Permanent Employee

Many hospitals have been trying to cut ties with their travel nurses as the pandemic rages on. Hiring short-term staff members is always more expensive than hiring someone full-time. For many facilities, reducing their dependence on travel nurses means investing more in recruitment and employee retention.

Nursing schools have become the backbone of the approach. Many facilities will partner with local schools to create graduate RN residency programs, thus making sure every graduating nurse can find a job in their home states. Nurses chosen for the program participate in several months of classes and work under an instructor, and then apply for an open job in their chosen department.

Before the pandemic, facilities would often encourage their staff members to accept travel nursing positions as a way of expanding their knowledge and training. Now, facilities need to find ways of training staff members in-house, so they don’t leave when they need them most.

Finding nurses to teach classes has also been a challenge, especially in rural states like Vermont. Professors with nursing degrees often get paid less than someone with the same skills working in a hospital. Rosemary Dale, chair of the UVM nursing department, says filling vacant faculty positions has been a nightmare. “You’d get 60 applications for a job for an English professor. If we got two applications, we’d be lucky.”

To counter these trends, hospitals and universities are creating generous scholarships for students as long as they agree to work at a local hospital for at least two years. For Northwestern Medical Center in Vermont, this means focusing more on recruiting locals than trying to bring providers in from out-of-state.

Jonathan Billings, a spokesperson for the school, says, “The emphasis is on training local folks who already have a connection to Vermont and northwestern Vermont. The grow-your-own nurses is really promising for us.”

The Future of Travel Nursing?

Sending talented providers to other parts of the country still has its perks and benefits. Facilities in rural or hard-hit areas often have no choice but to lure providers in from out-of-state. The practice likely won’t go extinct anytime soon, but it’s not the ideal solution for many hospitals. 

We still need providers to accept these assignments, so facilities can staff up at a moment’s notice. While for some hospitals, having enough staff means investing in the local community instead of bringing in providers from other parts of the country, many facilities nationwide are still very much interested in travel nurses to fill their open shifts. 

Steven Briggs
Steven Briggs is a healthcare writer for Scrubs Magazine, hailing from Brooklyn, NY. With both of his parents working in the healthcare industry, Steven writes about the various issues and concerns facing the industry today.

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