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How the COVID-19 Pandemic Changed Travel Nursing Forever

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Leigh Charlton, Wanderly

The COVID-19 pandemic placed healthcare professionals squarely in the public eye on a global stage, with travel nurses being front and center. As the coronavirus became pervasive throughout the United States, travel nurses were able to meet the dramatically increased needs of hospitals in hotspots. Between December 2019 and December 2020, travel nurse job openings increased by 217%.1 During the first period of COVID-19 infection growth, hotspots like New York City experienced a demand for travel intensive care nurses that rocketed upwards by 1,038%.2 A national poll by Avant Healthcare Professionals of more than 100 healthcare institutions reported that 90% of respondents employed travel nurses in the past year, compared to less than 60% in 2019.3

Travel nurses are well-adjusted to a mobile lifestyle, an attribute that enabled them to accept contracts in different areas of the country as the landscape of coronavirus infections changed. In this way, they supported permanent healthcare staff by temporarily expanding hospital personnel availability to cope with the massive influx of patients. When the roaring fire of the pandemic was finally calmed in one state, travel nurses had the skill sets and ability to move on to the next blaze. 

The necessity of these frontline heroes was reflected as hospitals, desperate for more hands, competed to recruit travel nurses with attractive pay packages and benefits. At some locations, travel nurses were earning as much as $10,000 a week.4 In exchange, they spent months on the road, experienced grueling work hours, handled shortages of personal protective equipment and other medical necessities, and shouldered a massive emotional burden, as did staff nurses.

The country at large was introduced to the lives and roles that travel nurses play in the American healthcare system. Will more nurses seek travel roles? Will facilities leverage flexible workers more often? As the pandemic hopefully begins to wind down in the United States, what might the future of travel nursing look like? What shape will an industry propelled into the limelight by COVID-19 take, and how will those influences guide the field going forward?

One result of the pandemic is the growing importance of telehealth. When it became unsafe to see patients in person for reasons that were not life-threatening, many healthcare institutions turned to video and telehealth to connect with their patients. This resulted in a potential increase in work-from-home nursing positions,5 wherein a nurse can video chat from anywhere instead of having to work on location. It’s important to keep in mind that travel nurses, whose jobs hinge on being able to move to an in-person location, may not be filling these roles unless they plan to change careers. On the other hand, work-from-home opportunities offer even more flexibility to a nurse’s employment toolbox.

Another result of the pandemic is sharp increases in nurse burnout. A nationwide survey of over 1,000 registered nurses conducted by the American Association of International Healthcare Recruitment found that 60% of them reported increased nurse-to-patient ratios in their hospitals. Of that group, 83% said that they were expected to be responsible for at least two more patients than usual.6 The toll of caring for people with an unknown, deadly virus is already crushing to healthcare workers; to feel that patients deserve more medical attention than an institution can provide because of labor and supply shortages is equally crushing. 

Over three-fourths of RNs involved in the survey reported experiencing extreme stress or anxiety, and 36% have seriously considered leaving their jobs for different careers.6 Kelley Johnson, a travel ICU nurse currently working for the digital health organization Wanderly, reflected on the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of nurses: “Losing any patient is absolutely traumatic, but losing patients at the rate of our frontline ICU health care providers during this pandemic is unconscionable. There will be aftermath, there will be burnout, there will need to be some form of recovery for a long time.” 

It goes without saying that the COVID-19 crisis has left deep scars across the country, but frontline healthcare workers who have given everything to the care of their patients have clearly been especially affected.

However, nursing is one of the most rapidly growing industries in the United States, despite the trials brought by the pandemic. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics lists “registered nurse” as one of the top occupations for growth through the year 2029, with an estimated net increase of 221,900 nurses.7 The wider accessibility of healthcare through the Affordable Care Act and the aging United States population are both expected to heavily contribute to the need for more nurses,8 cementing the future of nursing as an expanding industry. 

Each year, between two and three million baby boomers will surpass the age of 65, increasing the proportion of the population that requires geriatric care. Furthermore, over 40% of registered nurses in 2015 were over the age of 50. More than 500,000 RNs are anticipated to retire by 2022. Between the retirement of current nurses and increased demand for more nurses overall, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a need for 1.1 million new RNs.8 If the number of registered nurses does not rise to meet this demand, the country could face critical nursing shortages.

Since travel nurses so capably demonstrated their importance during the COVID-19 crisis, they will be essential in meeting the demand for nurses in the upcoming decade. The intensity of the pandemic gave many nurses a wealth of experience in specialties other than their own. A generation of accomplished, adaptable nurses who can easily move as needed to areas of high demand will be able to close nursing shortage gaps. 

Recently, 28% of surveyed hospital executives reported that they were looking to improve pay packages to help entice travel nurses to their hospitals, while 37% looked to offer sign-on bonuses.9 Not only will travel nurses be shaping the future of nursing in the coming decade, but they will also be some of the highest paid nurses in each hospital. 

Already a diverse and growing industry, travel nursing was catapulted into the public eye by COVID-19 coverage. Now, it has the potential to be one of the most important nursing segments going forward. The rising demand for nurses and their anticipated national shortage will make travel nurses who can move to address regional needs even more essential than ever before.

References: 

  1. “Registered Nurse Travel Demand Rises by 44% In November.” Staffing Industry Analysts, 2 Dec. 2020, www2.staffingindustry.com/site/Editorial/Daily-News/Registered-nurse-travel-demand-rises-by-44-in-November-56001.
  2. Longyear, Robert, et al. “Travel ICU Nurse Concerns Across Covid-19 Hot Spots.” NEJM Catalyst Innovations in Care Delivery, 28 Oct. 2020, catalyst.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/CAT.20.0504.
  3. Jamison, Mollie, et al. Travel Nurses, Staffing Industry Pushed to the Limits BY COVID-19. 28 Apr. 2021, cronkitenews.azpbs.org/2021/04/28/travel-nurses-staffing-industry-pushed-to-the-limits-by-covid/.
  4. Hawryluk, Markian, and Rae Ellen Bichelle. “Need a COVID-19 Nurse? That’ll Be $8,000 a Week.” Kaiser Health News, 24 Nov. 2020, khn.org/news/highly-paid-traveling-nurses-fill-staffing-shortages-during-covid-pandemic/.
  5. Gaines, Kathleen. “This Is How COVID-19 Is Changing The Future of Nursing For Students and Tenured Nurses.” Nurse.org, 26 June 2020, nurse.org/articles/how-covid19-changing-future-of-nursing-students-rn/.
  6. “Nationwide Nurse Survey Points to Mass Exodus From Bedside, Huge Increase in Nurse-to-Patient Ratios.” Business Wire, 5 Apr. 2021, www.businesswire.com/news/home/20210405005266/en/Nationwide-Nurse-Survey-Points-to-Mass-Exodus-From-Bedside-Huge-Increase-in-Nurse-to-Patient-Ratios.
  7. Rosseter, Robert. “Fact Sheet: Nursing Shortage.” American Association of Colleges of Nursing: The Voice of Academic Nursing, Sept. 2020, www.aacnnursing.org/news-information/fact-sheets/nursing-shortage.
  8. “Workforce.” American Nurses Association, www.nursingworld.org/practice-policy/workforce/.
  9. Muoio, Dave. “Hospital Executives Report High Nursing Vacancies, Greater Reliance on Costly Travel Nurses.” FierceHealthcare, 20 Apr. 2021, www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals/hospital-executives-report-high-nursing-vacancies-greater-reliance-costly-travel-nurses.

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