Understanding the implications of using agency nurses

The Great Nursing Resignation, and hospitals’ growing reliance on expensive agency labor (a.k.a. “travelers”) has grabbed headlines, for good reason. But lately we’ve heard a couple of anecdotes from health system leaders about the second-order impacts of the phenomenon that are worth considering as well.

First, as the ranks of agency nurses at hospitals have swelled, full-time employed nurses’ morale has plummeted—tenured nurses are having to orient their new temporary co-workers, then watch them earn up to three times as much money for the same work.

At the same time, willingness to work overtime among employed nurses has dropped. That’s not just because of burnout—it turns out that the nurses who were most likely to take overtime shifts are also more likely to have chosen to leave full-time employment to become travelers, where they are even more richly rewarded for working extra shifts. So, the “productivity” of the remaining corps of staff nurses has dropped, even as caseloads have increased.

One other implication we’ve heard about recently: the economic impact of “observation” cases, where patients are held in a staffed bed but not admitted—already a bad bargain for hospitals—has gotten worse. That’s because the cost of deploying staff to care for those patients has gone up, due to wage inflation and use of travelers. It’s hard to overstate the level of staffing crisis at most hospitals today, and the rapid growth in reliance on temporary staff will have consequences lasting well beyond the current surge.

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