WACO, TX — You may be familiar with the phrase "home is where the heart is." If you ask a travel nurse, they'll tell you home can be anywhere.
"Honestly, home is where they make it. They travel to whatever city they want to go to right now," said Heather Kylen.
Kylen is a nurse and a recruiter for travel nursing.
"I've been doing it for three years, actually going on four now," she explained. "And then previous to that I was a pediatric ICU nurse. So I flip in between both."
In the travel nursing industry, Kylen says they typically see a natural curve in demand, which is usually dictated by the flu. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for travel nurses has been sporadic.
"We saw a rapid decline in children's hospitals because we've now masked all of our children, and we've seen a massive increase obviously in the adult population, and that has been the trend throughout the entire year," Kylen said. "I don't see it slowing down."
Logan May has seen something similar to Kylen's experience first hand.
"I've been in the field for 5 years," May said. "I've been a traveler for about a year and half or two."
May agrees that home for travel nurses is where you make it.
"We actually find 13-week contracts, and then after that 13 weeks, you can choose to extend for another 13 weeks or go someplace else," she said.
But since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, home for her has been in one place.
"I just stayed out in Midland," May said. "I haven't gone to any other places. So that's a bummer, but it's safe here."
COVID-19 is still a large driver for the current state of demand with travel nurses. 25 News reached out to Baylor Scott & White Health on the topic, and was provided the following statement.
Across our organization, our multidisciplinary teams continue working to ensure we have adequate staffing to care for our patients. Our COVID-19 staffing preparation efforts include continuously studying and forecasting our staffing levels and deploying and recruiting team members, including supplemental contract staff, as needed. Our staff are critical to our ability to continue responding to the pandemic.
It's something Kathy Kohnke, the Senior Vice President of Client Services at Fastaff, a travel nursing staffing agency, is familiar with.
"We started to hear about a lot of our conversations in March," Kohnke explained. "We had to talk with clients about what do you think is going to happen? How are you going to plan and then from there in June? It just went off the deep end, and hospitals were getting inundated with patients."
COVID-19 safety protocol required an increasing number of travel nurses to fill the void at hospitals.
"They also were looking at the protocol," Kohnke said. "If I was a healthcare worker and I got exposed in the beginning, they were sitting people out for 14 days, but one patient can knock out ten nurses."
According to Kohnke, it wasn't just patients with COVID-19 hospitals were becoming inundated with. They also began seeing patients put other healthcare needs on the back burner, such as elective surgeries and other procedures hospitals were forced to limit.
"Some people put healthcare on the back burner because they didn't want to be in the hospital during COVID," Kohnke explained. "But now it's catch-up, and now things are becoming harder for hospitals. You've got all these other surgeries that must happen, the oncology surgeries, your GI surgeries, and so it's just trying to push through all this health care that's on the back burner, especially as we have an aging population."
According to the American Association of Colleges of Nurses, several factors contribute to a shortage in nursing.
- Nurses reaching retirement age
- Stress levels driving nurses to leave
- Nursing school facility shortage
Burn-out is a genuine factor with the workforce today, according to Kohnke.
"You've got nurse fatigue, nurses that have been working every day, you know, since last March. They're fatigued, and nurses are just breaking down," she said. "They're tired."
But with the high demand of travel nurses expected to persist after the pandemic and nurse fatigue playing a large role in the current state of today's workforce, it begs the question. Will there be a large enough workforce to meet that demand?
"You know you want to say yeah," Kohnke said. "I think there's enough nurses that have licenses now, but are they practicing nurses?"
According to Kohnke, the health care industry needs nurses with bedside knowledge for very acute patients, and she believes it's an issue healthcare professionals are all grappling with.
"Still expecting this demand to be high, and there's nothing that tells us that, you know, the nursing shortage has gone away," she explained. "Certainly, you know that a lot of nurses enter into the practice every year, but do they get to the point where they graduate and go in to work at a facility?"
Kohnke says hospital administrators are thinking both short-term and long-term about how to deal with a shortage in nurses, and it's a problem that's going to require some creativity.
"It's going to require some creativity from hospital administrators on how to, how do we overcome that?" she said. "I think one of the best ways is for people not using their license that still have debt, remove those student loans to have them go in and get experience with a hospital."
For now, Kohnke believes it's crucial as a society and community as we continue to strive towards ways to show our support for our health care workers.
"We need to show how thankful we are for what they've done," she said. "They have sacrificed so much and put themselves such at risk and and their families at risk, and I think people don't realize the emotional pain that they've gone through during this time."