The effects of the nursing shortage have never been more evident than in 2020. Pandemic-related demand for travel nurses skyrocketed as the U.S. health system struggled to respond to a pathogen that has claimed nearly 425,000 American lives to date. The need for nurses continues to remain high in 2021 as more and more health systems are turning to travel nurses to fill staffing gaps.
Lynne Gross, president of RNnetwork, says demand has never been higher in the 23 years she has been in travel nurse staffing. “Prior to the pandemic, we had more time to plan to get the nurses on assignment. Now it’s ‘How do we get them ready to go tomorrow?’ Our clients need nurses now, not in eight weeks.”
The short- and long-term cost for healthcare
This high demand for nurses to care for COVID patients has dramatically driven up the pay being offered to attract travel nurses. A side-effect has been that many staff nurses have chosen to leave their positions to try travel nursing for the first time, creating even more staffing gaps.
“We’re seeing an interesting phenomena: you might have a state that’s not being hugely impacted with COVID, but they have a high need for travelers because their permanent nurses are going to the states with the need — to either make the money or to help. So it’s kind of a vicious cycle,” says Gross.
The unanswered question is how sustainable is it for hospitals to continue to pay higher rates for nurses? “In the short-term, it makes fiscal sense to CFOs to bring a travel nurse to their facility if they can help relieve the stress on the permanent staff and ease the patient load,” Gross says. “It can be seen as a really good interim staffing practice for them to use travel nurses.”
Putting nurses to work faster
In the short term, hospitals are making this model work. But it’s contingent on getting the nurses to work quickly. The Nurse Licensure Compact has helped by making it easier for many nurses to practice in multiple states without having to obtain additional licenses. As of January 2021, there are currently more than 30 participating states with pending legislation in others.
In addition, some state legislatures have established emergency measures to expedite nurses’ licensing and put them to work quicker and bring more nurses into the system. For example, Utah’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing creating a temporary nursing apprentice license for nursing students. Hospitals have also become creative in their bid for pandemic help. All these efforts are making it easier to put travel nurses to work quickly.
When the “bubble” bursts
With the new federal administration’s announced goal of 300 million vaccinations by the end of summer 2021, this COVID-related demand for travel nurses won’t last forever. “Nurses will have to understand they’re not going to get paid the astronomical rates they’re earning now,” Gross says. “Pay is going to normalize because it’s supply and demand. We’ve been here before.”
In the 2021 nursing market, nurses will have to be open to the reality that they may need to be more flexible. “They may not be able to go to their first-choice location,” she says. “Some nurses new to travel nursing may not understand this, and some flexibility will be critical if they want to keep traveling.”
Returning to permanent employment
For those travel nurses who do intend to return to permanent employment for a time, Gross says the key is to not burn any bridges right now.
“If you’ve left your staff position to do some travel nursing,” Gross says, “make sure there’s communication and planning — not last-minute, but ahead of time. We always tell nurses not to burn bridges, because you can always go back. But you have to plan; you have to communicate. If you do those things, you will always be welcome back, even in your travel assignments.”
Gross also recommends getting good references and to just be the best nurse you can be. “I’ve always seen a nurse welcomed back to their perm job. So rest assured: you can take travel assignments and always return to perm. It can be the best of both worlds.”