Dawn Papandrea
Dawn Papandrea
May 27, 2016 - 3 min read

How Has Travel Nursing Grown: Major Milestones in Travel Nursing History

If you’re an RN and thinking of taking your work on the road as a travel nurse, you’re in good company. Travel nursing is a popular option among nursing professionals today, allowing you to seek interesting opportunities, competitive salaries, and the chance to visit different parts of the country.

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Travel nurses are hired to fill positions in high-demand areas or when a specific type of specialization is needed. As such, these positions are desirable for RNs who want to have a variety of nursing experiences in different settings.

But travel nursing wasn’t always as popular as it is today. Take a look at how this nursing specialization began, and the major milestones that have helped propel it into the lucrative career track that it is today.

In The Beginning

It is believed that the first area to hire contracted nurses that were brought in from other parts of the country was New Orleans in the late 1970s. With a large number of patients to deal with during the busy Mardi Gras week, hiring travel nurses for a few weeks helped fill the need for more staffing.

The idea took off in a more widespread way during the 1980s as a temporary solution to a national nursing shortage, according to the American Society of Registered Nurses website. As more and more healthcare organizations hired temporary nurses, more agencies opened to help place RNs who could fill in for short-term work.

Another common reason that travel nursing took off was to meet seasonal demand in areas of the country that attract larger numbers of travelers and retirees during winter seasons, such as in Florida and Arizona. According to a 2011 study by accounting firm KPMG, 45 percent of hospitals surveyed said busy seasons led them to hire traveling nurses.

The Arrival of the Digital Age

Travel nursing has definitely grown in popularity as shortages continued, and it became a viable option for RNs who were looking for another career avenue.

One of the things that contributed to the growth was the growth of the internet and mobile technology. These advances have made it easier for travel nurses to move around and still maintain their connections to a home base. In addition, it is easier to find out about travel nursing jobs and make industry connections with the internet, not to mention that agencies have an easier time finding candidates and conducting interviews.

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The Aging Population

Healthcare in general has seen a surge in demand over the last decade or so as the population ages and life expectancy gets longer. In fact, as pointed out by the National Institute of Nursing Research, approximately 80% of people age 65 and older have at least one chronic illness, such as heart disease, diabetes, or arthritis, and that the number of older adults with multiple chronic illnesses is substantial.

Those changing demographics have made nursing professionals more important than ever, and travel nurses have helped fill in the gaps when short-staffed healthcare institutions haven’t been able to keep up.

Obamacare and Growing Demand

Perhaps no single milestone has affected the growth of travel nursing than the passing of the Affordable Care Act. It’s estimated that an additional 8 million people signed up for health insurance in 2014. In fact, Keiser Health News reports that the demand for travel nursing has reached a 20-year high as a result.

At the same time, other factors have been in play, including the aforementioned aging population, shortages in healthcare staffing, regulatory changes, and an improving economy, says AMN Healthcare, a travel-nurse agency. Its CEO, Susan Salka, says requests from hospitals for travel nurses have doubled or tripled in recent years. This has been especially true for hospitals that have seen their profits rise thanks to an expansion of Medicaid.

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Looking Ahead

Although the nation has been through a nursing shortage before, it’s only expected to get worse in the coming decade. As per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is expected that there will be 1.2 million vacancies for registered nursing jobs between 2014 and 2022 as older nurses retire. With fewer nurses and more need for them, something has got to give.

It could very well end up that medical centers begin to rely more and more on travel nurses and other contracted workers since it’s a cost-effective solution for them.

Only time will tell, but for anyone considering going the travel nursing route, these trends are worth watching.

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