The nursing shortages facing children’s hospitals have been years in the making and stem from a variety of causes, including fewer nursing school enrollees, more nurses reaching retirement age and a wider array of options within health care for experienced nurses. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified these issues, but another factor driving nursing shortages has exploded in COVID-19’s wake.
“There’s a real struggle for children’s hospitals introduced by travel nurse assignments that hadn’t been the case before,” says Linda Talley, M.S., RN, NE-BC, FAAN, senior vice president and chief nursing officer at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. “The option to go take a travel nurse assignment comes with great financial reward right now.”
COVID-19 demand, high pay compel nurses to travel
Nationally, the pandemic-fueled rise in travel nursing has been dramatic. Research firm Staffing Industry Analysts reports the industry saw its revenues more than double in the first year of the pandemic. During that time, travel nursing played an integral role in the national COVID-19 response. The industry’s established infrastructure allowed for large numbers of medical professionals to rapidly deploy to overwhelmed hospitals in COVID-19 hotspots.
“When New York City was a major hotspot, we had some folks who wanted to volunteer for some travel assignments there. We supported that because at that point we didn't have a lot of patients. Since then, we have seen a fair amount of nurses leave to take travel assignments,” says Christine Young, M.S.N., MBA, RN, NEA-BC, chief of Hospital-Based Services and chief nursing officer at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio. “It certainly leaves us with a gap, and then we're trying to refill some of those vacated positions with travel nurses, so our costs are going up—it's a cycle.”
The demand has produced attractive opportunities for nurses. The average annual salary for a travel nurse is $108,070 in 2022—more than 43% higher than the average salary for staff nurses. “The financial incentives for travel nursing have escalated so rapidly, they’re almost too much to overlook,” Young says. “You have to be in the right family and social situation, but for the nurses who are able, it’s hard to judge them for wanting to do it.”
Efforts to minimize effects of travel nursing
Some states are discussing measures to limit the financial effects of travel nursing on health care systems. Meanwhile, children’s hospitals are exploring ways to limit their dependence on the contract workers.
Children’s Wisconsin is investing resources into its nursing staff—including wellness programs, additional paid time off and cash bonuses—in efforts to recruit and retain staff nurses. “We are using travelers, but the plan would be to sunset those as we onboard new nurses,” says Staci Benz, CEBS, SPHR, director of HR. “And we have a pretty robust pipeline of recruits right now.”