Authored by: Peggy Pilon, BSN, MS, RN, and VP of Clinical Success at CalmWave
Travel nursing–a field where nurses sign short-term contracts and move between different facilities–became exponentially more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to research from Staffing Industry Analysts, the number of travel nurses more than doubled from 2020 to 2021 with an estimated 100,000 travel nurses working during the peak of COVID.
Benefits of Travel Nursing
Travel nursing has become increasingly popular in recent years, and for good reason. This specialized type of nursing offers a unique opportunity for healthcare professionals to explore new places, gain valuable experience, and make a difference in communities across the country. In fact, travel nursing may just be the future of medicine, as it addresses some of the biggest challenges facing the healthcare industry today.
First and foremost, travel nursing provides a solution to the nursing shortage that has plagued the healthcare industry for years. According to an announcement from the American Nurses Association, the U.S. is projected to experience a shortage of over 1 million nurses by 2022. Travel nurses help to fill this gap by providing temporary staffing solutions for hospitals and healthcare facilities that are experiencing shortages. This not only ensures that patients receive the care they need, but it also creates job opportunities for nurses who may be struggling to find work in their local areas.
In addition to addressing the nursing shortage, travel nursing also offers a unique opportunity for nurses to gain valuable experience in a variety of settings. Travel nurses have the opportunity to work in different states, cities, and even countries, which allows them to learn new skills, broaden their knowledge base, and become experts in their field. This type of experience is invaluable, as it helps nurses develop a diverse set of skills that can be applied to a variety of healthcare settings.
Furthermore, travel nursing can also be an effective way to combat burnout among nurses. The demands of the nursing profession can be stressful, and many nurses struggle with burnout and fatigue. Travel nursing offers an alternative to the traditional nursing model, allowing nurses to take time off between assignments to recharge and reset. Travel nurses can also pick when they want to work. This can help prevent burnout and improve job satisfaction, which in turn can lead to better patient care.
Additionally, travel nurses may receive higher pay than full-time nurses, which can be a major factor in their decision to become a travel nurse. According to federal statistics, travel nurses were earning $125 an hour in 2021–nearly three times the hourly rate of full-time nurses.
Finally, travel nursing also offers nurses the opportunity to make a real difference in the communities they serve. By working in underserved areas, travel nurses can help address healthcare disparities and ensure that all patients receive the care they need. This type of work is not only rewarding, but it also has the potential to make a significant impact on public health.
Downsides of Travel Nursing (for Nurses)
While travel nursing can be a fulfilling and exciting career choice, there are some downsides to consider:
- Frequent moves: Travel nurses typically work on temporary assignments, which can range from a few weeks to several months. This means they have to move frequently and adjust to new surroundings, which can be disruptive and stressful.
- Lack of job security: Travel nurses are not guaranteed steady employment, as their assignments are dependent on the needs of healthcare facilities. This can make it difficult to plan for the future and can lead to financial uncertainty. Depending on how the contract is written, their work assignment can be canceled with short notice.
- Limited control over work assignments: Travel nurses are often assigned to fill staffing shortages at healthcare facilities, which can mean working in less-than-ideal conditions or dealing with difficult patients or colleagues.
- Difficulty maintaining personal relationships: Frequent moves and long working hours can make it challenging for travel nurses to maintain personal relationships, including friendships, romantic partnerships, and family connections. Many look at their assignments as places where they will only “work.” This can lead to a feeling of poor work/life balance.
- Inconsistent compensation: While travel nurses often earn higher salaries than staff nurses, their compensation can vary depending on location, specialty, and demand. This can make it difficult to plan for long-term financial goals. The jury is out on whether travel nurses’ packages earn more than staff nurses’ compensation when you take into account the full benefits that aren’t covered (401K/pension, sick time, perks, etc).
- Hostile work environments: Travel nurses can often experience hostile work environments in the units they support. Staff nurses can resent them because they know they are earning higher hourly wages when compared to regularly scheduled staff, which can makes the clinical environment challenging to work in.
- Lack of orientation: Travel nurses are expected to “hit the ground running” with minimal orientation to hospital protocols, procedures and medical devices. This can leave the travel nurse feeling unconfident about the patient care they are delivering. They can even feel like they are putting their RN license in jeopardy.
Overall, travel nursing can be a rewarding career choice for those who enjoy adventure and variety in their work, but it also requires a high degree of flexibility and willingness to adapt to the challenges in new environments.
Downsides of Travel Nursing (for Hospitals)
While travel nursing can provide a range of benefits to healthcare professionals and patients alike, there are also some ways in which it can hurt hospital systems. Here are a few potential downsides to consider:
- Increased staffing costs: Hiring travel nurses can be expensive for hospitals and healthcare facilities. Travel nurses may command higher salaries and benefits than permanent staff, which can drive up overall staffing costs.
- Decreased continuity of care: Travel nurses are typically hired on a temporary basis, which means that they may not be as familiar with the healthcare facility’s policies, procedures, and patient populations as permanent staff. This can lead to a decrease in continuity of care and may impact patient outcomes.
- Disruption to staffing patterns: The use of travel nurses can disrupt staffing patterns and schedules, which can create confusion and inconsistency in the workplace. This can make it more difficult for permanent staff to work effectively and efficiently.
- Potential for communication breakdowns: Travel nurses may not be as familiar with the local healthcare systems or cultures, which can lead to communication breakdowns between staff members. This can negatively impact patient care and may even lead to medical errors.
- Reduced investment in permanent staff: The use of travel nurses may lead hospitals to rely too heavily on temporary staffing solutions rather than investing in permanent staff. This can lead to a lack of investment in training, education, and career development for nurses.
- Staff Nurses’ morale: In order for hospitals to use travel nurses to fill their staffing holes, they risk decreasing staff morale. Staff often ask themselves, “why don’t they pay me what the travelers are receiving?”
It’s important to note that these downsides are not inherent to travel nursing, but rather are the result of poor planning, management, and execution. By working closely with travel nursing agencies, healthcare facilities can ensure that travel nurses are properly trained and integrated into their teams, which can help to mitigate some of these potential risks. Additionally, hospitals can work to develop comprehensive staffing plans that balance the use of temporary and permanent staff, in order to ensure continuity of care and support long-term workforce planning.
Travel Nursing Post-Pandemic
As the deadly pandemic spread rapidly throughout the world, nurses flocked to travel nursing to increase their compensation at a time when they were being thrust into new territory caring for critically ill patients 24/7. Massive amounts of patients swarmed hospitals and overwhelmed clinician workloads. According to Linda Aiken (University of Pennsylvania), “Each patient added to a hospital nurse’s workload is associated with a 7%-12% increase in hospital mortality.” Thus, despite their best efforts, nurses simply did not have the capacity nor the resources to care for the abundance of patients during the pandemic. Former travel nurse Pamela Esmond states that, “People say it’s burnout but it’s not . . . It’s the moral injury of watching patients not being taken care of on a day-to-day basis. You just can’t take it anymore.” After emerging from the COVID fog to see that they’re still being overburdened with workload and fatigued from caring for critically ill patients without adequate resources, it’s a no-brainer that many travel nurses are not returning to full-time staffing positions. They just can’t take it anymore.
So what’s the solution here? How do we convince distraught and traumatized travel nurses to continue caring for patients? It’s evident from the COVID pandemic that inadequate nurse-to-patient ratios and unreasonable clinician workloads are significant challenges faced by individuals in this field. The wave of COVID patients may be waning, but there is still a massive influx of ill individuals entering ICUs on a daily basis. Ensuring that nurses aren’t overloaded with patients is critical to the health and safety of both patients and clinicians. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) technology can help. AI technology has the impeccable and unique capacity for ingesting and aggregating massive amounts of data. This allows objective measurements of nurse-to-patient ratios and clinician workloads to be produced that can accurately inform nurse leaders and hospital staff on how to ensure their clinicians aren’t overburdened.
Travel nursing is a great solution and a great option for our largest healthcare workforce, but it is no silver bullet for solving the bigger healthcare crises of burnout, healthcare spending, and poor patient care.
It’s also important that we don’t look at the travel nursing trend as the cause of healthcare issues, but rather, the effect of a broken system.
We need to invest in solutions that are considerate of healthcare workers, helping improve their working conditions, including transparency, equity, flexibility, and higher wages. These are some of the reasons nurses flock to travel nursing in the first place.
Travel Nursing is here to stay. The future of healthcare will rely on these workers to support the “flex” required to manage the cyclic nature of healthcare demands and employee needs.
CalmWave has harnessed the power of AI to produce Operations Health measurements that aid in the proper staffing and workload of clinicians. We are optimistic that improving clinician workload with CalmWave will allow patients to be taken care of appropriately, and–most importantly–will show nurses that being overburdened during the COVID pandemic is a thing of the past. Travel and staff nurses alike do not need to ‘take it anymore.’ It’s time that clinicians are given a fair chance at thriving in their workplace. Schedule a demo today at calmwave.ai to gain the tools necessary to welcome back travel nurses who endured the horrors of the COVID pandemic.