Can Travel Nursing Help Address the Healthcare Demand Surge?

by Jennifer Larson


 Briefings-TN-DemandSurgeA surge in demand for healthcare professionals, and nurses in particular, began in mid-2014 and shows no sign of abating. The causes of the surge include the Affordable Care Act signing up 8 million people for health insurance, an aging population needing more care, shortages in most types of healthcare professionals, regulatory changes and an improving economy. Those forces aren’t dramatically changing in the near future.

In addition to rising demand in all regions and specialties, there also is rising demand for new and emerging healthcare roles, such as care coordinator, health coach and other clinical jobs.

Travel nursing can play an important role in helping hospitals, health systems and other healthcare facilities successfully respond to rising demand, said Ralph Henderson, President of Healthcare Staffing at AMN Healthcare. AMN was one of the first institutions to record the surge in demand in mid-2014, which was eventually validated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics this month when it looked back at 2014 healthcare job growth.

“AMN felt the demand surge first,” Henderson said. “When providers suddenly need healthcare professionals, the first thing they do is pick up the phone and call us. We are the first responders.”

In the short-term, healthcare staffing companies can help provide for immediate need. In the longer term, healthcare providers need to engage workforce planning by assessing both immediate needs and long-range concerns, Henderson said, including through leveraging any analytics or predictive insights that are available. But many hospitals and health systems do not have that capacity, because they are so focused on patient care, he said. They may need to identify partners with strategic workforce planning expertise to help make informed decisions and implement strategies quickly, Henderson said.

Strategic Workforce Planning Needed

The best first step is to do a full analysis of needs, which should include a close examination of past trends in patient census and staffing numbers, said Theresa Mazzaro, RN, BA, CHCR, a leader in nurse recruitment and workforce planning.

For example, many hospitals experience a surge in their inpatient census in the January-March period, which tends to be peak flu-and-respiratory-virus season. They can plan in advance for that surge by determining how many extra staff they have needed in the past and will likely need in the future to care for patients during that period, said Mazarro, who works for PeaceHealth in Vancouver, Washington, and with the National Association for Health Care Recruitment.

“People are looking at doing a forecast and preordering,” she said, adding that some hospitals “preorders” call for temporary nurses for the winter months because their analysis reveals that they will need them then.

Another example: a small hospital in Alaska tends to have a surge in patients during the summer months—when the cruise ships arrive. Even a small upswing in patients can quickly overwhelm a hospital with a small staff, especially if any of the permanent staff are on vacation.

“You have to really plan out your staffing into the future,” said Mazarro. “And there are really a lot of factors to think about.”

Kimberly Harper, MS, RN, president of the National Forum of State Nursing Workforce Centers, said she definitely expects hospitals to hire more nurses in 2015 than they did last year, when some organizations were uncertain about the potential effects of the Affordable Care Act. When patients continue to show up, hospitals will need to quickly hire nurses to care for them. Some organizations may be hesitant about hiring too many permanent staff.

“I think hospitals will start using travel nurses even more,” she predicted.

In fact, in her own state of Indiana, she’s already seeing hospitals boost their use of travel nurses.

New Roles to Fill

As 2015 continues to unfold, there will likely be new roles opening for nurses beyond the traditional hospital jobs. In the move toward new delivery care models, new roles for nurses include health coach, care coordinators and navigators. Some highly-tenured nurses are even being drawn into clinical documentation specialist positions.

These new positions may be filled by either staff or travel nurses who receive upskill training for these roles, said Marcia Faller, RN, PhD, Chief Clinical Officer at AMN Healthcare.

“One factor in the surge in demand for healthcare professionals is new regulations for increasing patient satisfaction, reducing readmissions, improving patient safety and other quality care measures,” she said. “These will require new and emerging healthcare roles. Providers need to begin planning now for how they are going to fill these jobs.”