How to Cost-Effectively Build a Nursing Staff in an Age of Travel Nursing

Travel nursing rose in popularity in the 1980s in response to nursing staff shortages but exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, the vast majority of hospitals hired travel nurses to support their teams. In 2022, the demand for travel nurses rose by a staggering 284%. Travel nursing has proven to be a go-to option to combat nursing shortages.

But travel nurses are expensive, often earning double the pay of local nurses. It’s also much more difficult to recruit them to rural environments as opposed to major cities. The model is increasingly cost prohibitive and unsustainable. The best way to reduce reliance on travel nurses is to be realistic about its role and offer exactly what the best-fitting, long-term nurses need.

Be realistic about the appeal of travel nursing.

Healthcare organizations, particularly hospitals and health systems, should plan how travel nurses can be incorporated into their workforce. Management should constantly communicate to full-time nursing staff that hiring travel nurses is only a temporary fix that is necessary at times to avoid disruption of services, particularly to reduce the workload of existing staff. They should also emphasize that the organization is aiming to convert travel nurses to full-time staff.

Maintain relationships with current employees.

Hospitals should expect some of their nursing staff to take advantage of the financial incentives of joining travel nursing agencies. However, they should consider maintaining the employment status of these nurses and encouraging them to return after their contract expires. Hospitals can also create programs aimed to establish a positive work environment, in which travel nurses who return work cordially and effectively with existing staff. Alternatively, hospitals can allow their nursing staff to benefit from experiences like rotations in new departments to help them avoid burnout.

Offer a new level of flexibility.

While many nurses seek flexibility in their schedules, some may even prefer a flexible work location for personal reasons. Some healthcare systems are now developing their own in-house agencies to meet their nurses’ location needs, while competing on compensation with traditional travel nursing agencies. Such flexibility can help hospitals retain nurses interested in travel opportunities, reduce reliance on contract staff, and ensure nurses in the system remain familiar with the culture and protocols.

Invest in their careers.

Promote education, upskilling, and advancement opportunities. Aside from demonstrating the employer’s interest in the staff’s professional development, continuing education can promote engagement by reinvigorating nurses’ passion for their profession. Learning itself is often a great motivator because the feeling of accomplishment can boost an individual’s feelings of confidence and self-worth.

Use assessments and leverage technology to screen candidates.

Hospitals should consider using personality assessments like Medix’s MyPrint to screen nursing candidates and identify those who are most likely to be a good fit for the existing team to build a pipeline of nurses. They should then build nurturing relationships with potential recruits. To expedite recruitment, hospitals should consider leveraging technology to analyze the nursing talent pool, identify qualified candidates, and initiate outreach using a variety of sourcing platforms.

Partner with a nursing staffing agency.

Relying on travel nurses alone will not stabilize the nursing workforce in the long run, and specialized nurse staffing agencies know this. They work diligently to build talent pools of local, permanent nurses near their clients. Agencies can alleviate the recruiting pains of internal HR teams and nursing teams, absorbing much of the burden of recruiting, hiring, and even onboarding. They also have experience staffing temporary talent, temp-to-perm talent, and permanent talent.

While travel nursing has certainly been a legitimate means of fighting the nursing shortage, it is unlikely to be sustainable at its current level. Fortunately, there are ways to embrace it, while turning to local, permanent nurses. Now is the time to do so—and to put your healthcare organization in a place that’s on budget, without compromising patient care.

For more on cost-effective nursing staffing solutions, read our full guide: “Beyond Travel Nursing: Sustainable Staffing Solutions to Address Nursing Shortages.”

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