Why travel nursing has surged

ACA, booming economy increase staffing needs at many hospitals

The demand for nurses has hit a 20-year high, and many RNs are using demand for their services to their advantage by becoming travel nurses, Phil Galewitz reports for Kaiser Health News.

A report from research firm Staffing Industry Analysts found the demand for travel nursing could rise by 10% this year—and likely will accelerate—because of an uptick in hospital volumes spurred by the Affordable Care Act.

Susan Salka, CEO of the nation's largest travel-nurse company AMN Healthcare, says orders from hospitals for travel nurses have doubled or tripled over the past few years, and the demand is especially high for ICU and ED nurses.

Health care employment growth has helped popularize the traveling nurse profession, too. Randle Reece, an analyst with investment firm Avondale Partners, says, "We've seen a broad uptick in health care employment, which the staffing agencies are riding," noting that employment in the health care sector is at its highest level since the mid-1990s.

Ten-year travel nurse veteran Cherisse Dillard, a labor and delivery room nurse, adds, "When the economy crashed in 2008, hospitals became tight with their budget and it was tough to find jobs, but now it's back to full swing and there are abundant jobs for travel nurses."

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Why hospitals employ traveling RNs

A main reason hospitals use traveling nurses is to get through seasonal staffing shortages, according to a 2011 KPMG study. For instance, about 50% of hospitals in states like Florida and Arizona, where many retirees reside in the winter months, say the influx has led them to hire traveling nurses.

One such hospital currently employing traveling nurses is Atlanta's Northside Hospital. According to HR manager David Votta, Northside is using 40 travel nurses—a 52% increase over last year. Votta says the travel nurses are invaluable in remedying staffing shortages, but "it's a love-hate relationship" because travel nurses sometimes cost more per hour than traditional RNs.

Linda Aiken, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research, points out that reducing staffing shortages could decrease patient mortality.  

While there has been some evidence linking patient safety issues to traveling nurses, a 2012 study by UPenn researchers of more than one million patients and 40,000 nurses found no correlation.

Travel-nurse companies like AMN and Cross Country Healthcare screen and interview nurses for proper qualifications, and some hospitals require additional evaluations. Nurses also have to be licensed to practice in the state, but about 20 states have reciprocity laws that make becoming licensed less cumbersome (Galewitz, Kaiser Health News, 5/27).  

The takeaway: YoDriven by the uptick in insured individuals under the ACA as well as a booming economy, travel nursing has re-entered the spotlight as a potential solution to looming staffing shortages in the health care sector.

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