During the peak of the pandemic, almost every hospital in the U.S. hired travel nurses to support their teams. At one point, demand grew by a staggering 284%. While independent staffing agencies or specialized travel nursing agencies—which have seen roughly 50% growth over the last year—often employ travel nurses, some health systems have resorted to establishing their own in-house travel nursing recruiting teams to deal with the staffing crisis.
Regardless of their means of acquiring talent, healthcare organizations have leveraged travel nursing popularity to fill positions when local candidates are few and far between. For nurses, this has been prosperous, resulting in higher pay, housing stipends, the opportunity to travel, and flexibility in an age of burnout. But while there are objective benefits for both parties, there are also a number of issues for hospitals and health systems.
How costly has travel nursing become for hospitals?
Retention of nursing staff continues to pose a significant challenge, and hospitals have spent well over $20 billion since the pandemic to mitigate the nursing staff shortage. Many staff nurses are leaving their full-time employment only to return as employees of travel nursing agencies. These nurses may subsequently earn considerably more, potentially even thrice more, than their previous colleagues. Hospitals are losing a large number of staff nurses to travel nursing and, ironically, are forced to pay travel nursing agencies exorbitant rates to secure new nurses. As a result, their financial stability is further jeopardized.
What other issues has it caused?
Several travel nursing agencies have been accused of price gouging. Lawsuits pushed a group of senators and representatives to urge the White House COVID-19 Response Team coordinator to investigate allegations.
Some hospital chains, travel nursing agencies, and nurses have even had legal battles over late bills, overpromised and underdelivered pay, and price gouging, raising tensions between all parties. Some states are taking action as well. Pennsylvania, for example, proposed a law that aimed to establish maximum rates for travel nurses temporarily employed in assisted living residences, nursing homes, and personal care homes to end the practice of gouging taxpayers and the Medicaid program. In Illinois, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, travel nursing agencies face wage caps, and can only charge up to 150% of the average median wage rate over the last three years.
Although travel nursing may not be viable in the long run, mainly due to high costs, the nursing profession was already in decline, even before the pandemic. Travel nursing was merely a temporary fix to an existing crisis. In fact, there may be a shortage of up to 450,000 registered nurses within the next three years, despite aggressive recruiting attempts by the government and healthcare providers. Many U.S. organizations have even turned to international talent to fill gaps, but that strategy has its own unfortunate issues, including visa application delays.
Travel nursing has shifted some nurses from underserved areas to areas with better-paying opportunities. Many rural nurses in particular appear to be leaving their staff jobs for travel nursing jobs, mainly because of the significant bump in pay and the opportunity to live in an entirely new, big-city setting. As a result, rural hospitals are now grappling with long-term staffing shortages, often to a higher degree than their urban counterparts. This exacerbates the issues for people who live in rural areas and already have limited access to care.
While travel nursing has been a boon for many nurses and allowed hospitals and health systems in certain locales to find talent in a hurry, it’s an expensive band-aid solution. As this has become clearer by the day, and the projected nursing shortage has become increasingly troubling, even the U.S. government is stepping in. Nursing staffing agencies have also been forced to think outside the box, putting more emphasis on local talent screening and personality testing, in order to find the best, long-term fits. Some universities are even scaling back their nursing school admission requirements in attempts to trigger an influx of new, diverse applicants.
Perhaps all of this activity is the silver lining. By working together, we’ll gradually solve the nursing shortage problem. The entire dynamic will make a positive shift, and even travel nursing will have its place, albeit differently and more feasibly.
To read more about alternative and sustainable staffing solutions to address nursing shortages, read our guide here:
Beyond Travel Nursing: Sustainable Staffing Solutions to Address Nursing Shortages