The demand for travel nurses has reached a 20-year high. While we’d like to say that’s a good thing, the reality is, the demand stems from a national nursing shortage. It’s being called the “silver tsunami” – a tidal wave of retiring nurses happening at a time when the senior population is expected to spike. This is a dangerous combination of events, especially when you consider that nurses are responsible for providing roughly 90 percent of the world’s healthcare.
According to the AACN, in April 2022, Dr. David Auerbach and colleagues published a nursing workforce analysis that found that the total supply of RNs decreased by more than 100,000 from 2020 to 2021. This alarming statistic is the largest drop observed over the past four decades. Most of these RNs were hospital nurses, leaving already short-staffed hospitals looking for solutions.
Hospitals have used travel nursing well before the national nursing shortage, but usage has since soared as more hospitals and other facilities have found it increasingly harder to both recruit and retain skilled nurses. This article will discuss why hospitals use travel nurses and how it can benefit both the hospital and the nurse.
History of Travel Nurses
The first contracted nurses were brought in from other parts of the country for Mardi Gras in New Orleans during the late 1970s. Hospitals needed help with increased patient loads and temporarily hired nurses to help out staff nurses. Travel nursing grew in popularity in the 1980s as a temporary solution to fill the national nursing shortage. Hospitals in areas with large numbers of retirees traveling for the winter enlisted travel nurses to fill increased demands for the season. Agencies began to recognize that hospitals were using nurses to fill short-term needs and opened to place RNs throughout the country.
What Is A Travel Nurse?
A travel nurse is a registered nurse who works on a contract basis to help fill temporary nursing shortages in healthcare facilities. Travel nurses often work in hospitals but may also work in surgical centers, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, rehab facilities, occupational health clinics, or doctor’s offices. Travel nurses bring their expertise to healthcare facilities throughout the country. They come from all different backgrounds in various specialties such as the emergency department, med surg, interventional radiology, labor and delivery, NICU, ICU, and pediatrics making them an excellent choice for hard-to-fill positions or temporary gaps in employment.
Nurses work with travel nursing agencies to obtain contracts in various healthcare systems throughout the country. Typical contract lengths are 13 weeks, however, contracts can last anywhere from 8-26 weeks or longer.
The responsibilities of a travel nurse are the same as any staff nurse. Requirements for being a travel nurse include being a registered nurse with current licensure in the state they are contracted to be practicing in. Staffing agencies and hospitals typically want travel nurses to have at least 1-2 years of experience before taking on a travel assignment.
5 Ways Travel Nurses Provide Benefits
Hospitals hire travel nurses for several reasons that may benefit both the hospital and the nurse.
1. Staffing shortages: Hospitals often experience shortages in staffing, especially during peak periods like flu season, natural disasters, or other busy seasons. Even the largest hospital systems who are often adequately staffed still require help from time to time. Hospital systems are hiring travel nurses to cover staff absences due to health or personal reasons. Staff nurses may take maternity leave, have surgery, or need to care for loved ones of their own. A travel nurse can be contracted to take over the position until the employee returns.
Travel nurses are also utilized to fill temporary roles between full-time hires. Travel nurses provide a flexible solution to quickly fill these gaps, offering much-needed support to permanent staff.
2. Cost-effectiveness: Traditionally, travel nursing was seen as an expensive option; but that’s not entirely true. Hiring travel nurses to fill positions may be less expensive as employment costs continue to climb. Hospitals spend millions of dollars and resources recruiting and training new nurses. Because traveling nurses are employees of their agency, the administration is spared the nursing labor costs of employee benefits like health insurance, paid time off (PTO), and retirement.
Travel nurses usually have their housing and travel expenses covered by the agency, so hospitals do not have to incur these costs unless it is included in the agency contract. This makes travel nursing a cost-effective solution for most healthcare systems.
Richard Wahlquist, president, and chief executive officer of the American Staffing Association, commented on a study that evaluates the expense of travel nursing: He stated that the study showed that supplemental nurses offer the strategic flexibility that hospitals need to augment their workforce during peak times and to address any interim labor shortages related to leaving coverage, vacancies, and expansion of services. The research discovered that hourly personnel costs for supplemental nurses efficiently offset the overtime costs of permanent nurses.
3. Specialized skills: Travel nurses bring specialized skills and experience with them to each new contract. They provide expertise and a fresh perspective from all over the country. This is particularly beneficial for smaller hospitals that may not have the resources to hire specialized staff permanently. Travel nurses that have previously worked in larger state-of-the-art facilities may introduce new ideas and evidence-based practice to the units they temporarily work on helping to improve patient care.
4. Seasonal demand: Some hospitals may experience a surge in patient demand and require higher staffing levels during certain times of the year, such as summer or winter. Various regions of the country experience a predictable rise and decline in their census each year. In the winter, “snowbirds” head to Florida or other warm climates, while in the summer, they tend to travel up to Cape Cod, Maine, and other temperate climates. Travel nurses can be hired temporarily to meet this increased demand, providing the hospital with the additional staff they need without the commitment of a long-term hire.
Flu season can also bring an increase in demand for nurses. Staffing managers often plan and have travel nurses fill these positions instead of bringing on full-time staff and then having to lower their hours or laying them off.
5. Prevent nurse burnout: Typical travel nursing contracts last about 13 weeks, leaving little time for nurses to get involved in unit politics or experience nurse burnout. Poor nurse-to-patient ratios have led to high turnover rates, especially in areas like the ER. Travel nurses have the flexibility to choose where they want to work for short periods leading to higher job satisfaction for nurses willing to live the travel nurse life.
Why Travel Nurses Are so Crucial Today
Travel nurses are a wonderful stopgap. A typical travel nurse will be assigned to a hospital for a 13-week contract, which can be shortened, extended, or renewed at the facility's request. Upon completion of their contract, the travel nurse will traditionally move on to another facility in need of their services.
Hospitals are finding travel nursing options increasingly more attractive for hard-to-fill positions, especially facilities in rural or low-populated areas that find it problematic to maintain adequate staff. Travel nurses are excellent temporary solutions in hard-to-fill areas. Instead of sitting on open job postings for months at a time, healthcare administration can use travel nursing agencies to fill the void during periods of higher staffing levels. Vacant positions can be hazardous to safe patient care, rather than leaving an opening in staffing, travel nurses can be utilized to improve staff-to-patient ratios. Travel nurses cover a range of specialties, making them very useful for hospitals struggling to recruit nurses.
Healthcare systems often bring on travel nurses during special projects such as opening a new unit or changing charting systems. Travel nurses can fill in temporary gaps when extra staff is needed, but not required in the long term. Travel nurses who are already familiar with the new charting system can be a great asset during the conversion process.
Travel nurses are vital during times of crisis, such as during the pandemic. Staff nurses can provide temporary relief by working overtime, but too much can lead to increased errors and burnout. Utilizing travel nurses allows for extra coverage, reduced burnout, and increases patient safety.
When hospitals hire travel nurses it provides a huge advantage in flexibility and response time during a staffing or health crisis. It is cumbersome to hire and fully train permanent nursing staff quickly enough to respond to surging case numbers. Travel nurses are available to start immediately tending to patients without the need for an extensive orientation. The hospital is then able to have the nurse move on from their contract when case numbers decrease.
Hiring travel nurses is a cost-effective and flexible solution for hospitals facing staffing shortages. Travel nursing offers numerous benefits for both the hospital and the nurse. HCTN allows nurses to grow their wealth and receive comprehensive benefits and wellness coverage packages similar to staff nurses while enjoying the freedom of travel nursing. Reach out to one of our trusted nurse staffing recruiters to discover your dream travel job today.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do hospitals hire travel nurses instead of nurses?
Hospitals hire travel nurses instead of staff nurses for a variety of reasons. Hospitals will frequently use travel nurses during staffing shortages or during times of high patient census like during the pandemic or flu season. Hiring travel nurses is a cost-effective solution to fill in temporary gaps in employment or increased demand. Travel nurses do not require extensive orientation, hospital-sponsored benefits packages, or paid time off. Hospital systems can utilize travel nurses for short-term contracts without the expense of hiring staff nurses.
Why is travel nurse pay so high?
The average pay scale of travel nurses is often higher than staff nurses in exchange for their flexibility. Travel nurses often accept hard-to-fill assignments on a short-term basis. They are often willing to accept assignments in rural areas that other nurses aren’t interested in leading to severe nursing shortages. Hospitals need to attract travel nurses with higher pay to fill contracts or positions in specific specialties. When healthcare facilities aren’t able to fill staff nurse positions in certain specialties they will hire travel nurses to provide expert care. Travel nurses often take on assignments in different states making them eligible for housing stipends, meal and incidental stipends, and sign-on bonuses that increase their pay. Travel nurses fill short-term needs, accept assignments in less desirable areas, and receive higher pay for their flexibility and willingness to travel.
Why is travel nursing so important?
People choose nursing to help people, travel nurses can take it a step further and help patients throughout the country. Travel nursing is important because it fills crucial needs during staffing shortages or increased census. Inadequate nurse-to-patient ratios place patient safety at risk and lead to an increase in medical errors. Hiring travel nurses allows for safer nurse-to-patient ratios, reduces staff nurse burnout, and decreases safety risks. Visit our travel nursing blog to learn all there is to know about travel nursing.