How is the boom in traveling nurses affecting healthcare during the pandemic?

Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz | February 24, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic poses an array of challenges to healthcare professionals. Among them, RNs face mental health issues associated with risk of infection, lack of personal protection equipment (PPE), and substandard hospital support, according to a 2021 study published in Workplace Health & Safety.

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Mid-shift afternoon and overnight nurse-physician huddles were scheduled to address patient care issues and family concerns.

These conditions prompted many nurses to leave their hospital staff positions and hit the road for work. As they depart to pursue more lucrative opportunities, hospitals are struggling without adequate staff—and so are patients.

Reasons for the rise in traveling nurses

Traveling nurses address nursing shortages across the nation. According to a 2021 Kaiser Health News article, the practice of routinely picking up and settling down in some of the country’s most understaffed hospitals has roots in the 1980s. 

Although traveling nurses have always earned higher compensation than their staff counterparts, COVID laid the groundwork for unrivaled weekly rates. Traveling ICU nurses, for example, have sometimes earned up to $10,000 in one week—pay that more than doubles that of hospital nursing staff.

Additionally, for traveling nurses, pay typically is not commensurate with experience. Whereas experience and education affect pay for staff nurses, traveling nurses get paid based on a number of different factors—such as demand, in New York City’s case. The nature of their pay may also entail hourly wages and non-taxed stipends per diem and for travel.

So, how does this influx of traveling nurses during COVID influence healthcare as a whole?

Weighing the pros and cons

For one, hospitals are straining under nursing staffing shortages. KFN notes that some hospitals are stuck in a costly hiring cycle: In an attempt to secure adequate staffing, their financial resources are dwindling, which contributes to lower staff numbers.

Other hospitals don’t see the use in allocating funds to nurses who will be gone after a few weeks. Even with state assistance, some hospitals can’t afford traveling nurses. This is especially true for hospitals that temporarily suspend lucrative elective surgeries.

One of the most dire consequences of hospital nursing staff shortages is that COVID patients who require specialized support devices, such as ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machines, are being turned away. Not enough staff are trained to operate the machines, which ultimately hurts patients.

On the other hand, traveling nurses do still meet the demands that inspired their inception in the first place. According to Nurse Leader, the need for supplemental nurses skyrocketed because of COVID. Those who responded to the call acquired pandemic-specific skills and experience, providing invaluable services to hospitals that were already coping with RN vacancy rates of 9%-10%.

Some travel nurses serving patients in some of the most COVID-saturated parts of the country feel that these extra demands are partially offset by the greater work flexibility. The pay raise enables traveling nurses to take breaks between contracts, allowing them the freedom to rest and mitigate burnout—which could otherwise prevent them from leaving the profession altogether.

Learning opportunities

The authors of an article published by Nurse Leader detail the experiences of some new traveling nurses: 

“Some nurses were already contemplating the travel work arrangement on a back burner,” the authors wrote. “The pandemic inspired them to act and go where the need was most urgent. First-time travel nurses were bursting with intellectual curiosity, eager to enhance their skills by gaining exposure to new settings and learning from different hospitals’ responses to the crisis.”

While healthcare systems juggle the good and the bad pertaining to the uptick in traveling nurses, perhaps all nurses—and their patients—could benefit from a new approach to the changing landscape of healthcare.

Better support for nurses throughout the pandemic

To maximize the services provided by traveling and staff nurses during COVID, Nurse Leader recommends implementing the following:

  • Non-RN support staff. Hospitals can ensure that traveling and staff nurses are working to the full potential of their position by having nursing assistants, monitor techs, patient care techs, and clerical staff available to complete tasks that could pull nurses away from work that requires their level of training and expertise.

  • Collaborative efforts between traveling nurses and staff. Hospitals can mitigate animosity from staff to traveling nurses by educating staff about the complex nature of travel nursing. Encouraging social and educational activities that bring staff and traveling nurses together can enrich their work relationships and produce better health outcomes among patients.

  • Team-based models and shorter shifts. Build teams and cohorts among nurses that can meet increased patient needs with functional delivery methods. Testing shorter shifts—such as 8 hours, 5 days a week—could also be beneficial to all nurses on site.

Sources

  1. Cho H, Sagherian K, Steege LM. Hospital nursing staff perceptions of resources provided by their organizations during the covid-19 pandemic. Workplace Health & Safety. 2021;69(4):174-181.

  2. Farmer B. Worn-Out Nurses Hit the Road for Better Pay, Stressing Hospital Budgets — And Morale. Kaiser Health News. October 21, 2021.

  3. Hansen A, Tuttas C. Professional choice 2020-2021: travel nursing turns the tide. Nurse Leader. Published online February 9, 2022.

  4. Hilgers L. Nurses Have Finally Learned What They’re Worth. New York Times Magazine. February 15, 2022.

  5. Walker A. What Does a Travel Nurse Do & How Can You Make the Most Money as a Travel Nurse?. Nurse.org. January 14, 2022. 

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