Gloved hands of group of healthcare workers

There’s been an exponential increase in demand for travel nurses during the pandemic, which has, in turn, increased pay packages for clinicians willing to travel. In August 2021, bill rates for travelers were up more than 40% compared to the previous year. Personal finances have enticed many nurses to add a travel experience to their career path. But while the pay is appealing, it isn’t sustainable for health systems. 


Chief nurse executives hope to balance the need for travel nurses and control costs. Some healthcare leaders say they don’t “see a balance coming any time soon,” though they realize they “can’t operate the health industry today without the travel industry.”


In SimpliFi’s first session of RED2021, “Navigating Labor Challenges in a Pandemic,” healthcare executives discussed their reliance on travel nurse agencies, the future of these partnerships, and the necessity to employ competent and confident travelers.

Travel Nurse Pay Rates

When it comes to the future of travel nurse pay rates, Chief Nurse Executive Sharon Pappas of Emory Healthcare said it would “be a great place to have a crystal ball.” Her fellow panelists and colleagues agreed.

For now, Claire Zangerle, Chief Nurse Executive at Allegheny Health Network, says she expects health systems to continue using travel nurse agencies at a higher level than usual.


“The last thing we want to do is turn patients away,” Zangerle said. “If it means that we have to keep those agency nurses on for as long as this takes for us to get through… that’s what we’re going to do.”


Another piece of the travel nurse conundrum is travelers leaving their assignments for higher pay elsewhere. Health systems are already in tense situations with current travel nurse pay rates, but travelers leaving in the middle of their contracts add to the strain on finances, morale, and patient care.


“Something we’ve experienced that we really haven’t experienced before is travelers leaving their contracts early to go for more money,” said June Altaras, Senior VP, Chief Quality, Safety and Nursing Officer of MultiCare Health System. “The disruption to team and culture is difficult to articulate, but it has actually become something that happens fairly frequently versus less frequently.”

The Travel Nurses Hospitals Want

Recently, healthcare executives noted several staff nurses leaving their jobs and turning to travel before they’ve fully transitioned into their professional practice. While these leaders recognize their health systems need travelers, they want experienced travelers.


“We need ones who can step into the complexity of still managing COVID-19 and understand that this is still very much a fluid work environment. [We need them] to fit in with the staff quickly, join the culture quickly, and become a team member,” said Anna Kiger, VP and System Chief Nurse Officer of Sutter Health.


When health systems can’t find those seasoned, confident travelers, they are forced to take on the responsibility of training new travelers during a time of limited resources.


“What that means to us as a hospital operator is if we take that candidate… we will have to commit to spending more time with them in the general orientation phase,” Kiger explained. “Traditionally, an experienced traveler comes to a hospital, has one day of orientation, and is then put on the unit and into practice. So, we are seeing that a lot of individuals have gone into the travel industry who may not be quite prepared clinically, and on another hand, they may not fully understand the work-life balance of a travel nurse.”


Though travel nurse pay rates and experience levels weigh on the mind of healthcare executives, what they want most is a united front, comprised of both staff nurses and travelers, in their patient care.


“At the end of the day, we want a unified workforce taking care of our patients. We want to provide them with the highest level of care and the best customer experience possible,” Kiger said.


SimpliFi is helping healthcare facilities navigate the fluctuating market with leading-edge analytics, customized unit staffing programs, and improved hiring and vetting processes. If you would like to talk to SimpliFi about potential workforce strategies to implement in your health system, contact us.