Nurses leave rural hospitals for travel jobs as pandemic widens 'every fracture' in system

About 60 million Americans living in rural areas rely on small, local hospitals for care. The pandemic is exacerbating every pitfall rural hospitals face, draining resources already in short supply — such as nurses, according to NBC News.

A spike in demand for travel nurses is exacerbating a long-standing staffing shortage, with rural nurses able to make up to 10 times the pay they would earn in their hometown.

Rural hospital nurses are paid an average of $70,000 annually, or about $1,200 per week, according to ZipRecruiter data cited by NBC. However, some staffing agencies are offering travel nurses more than $5,000 per week, with healthcare hiring site Vivian listing several travel assignments that pay up to $9,562 each week.

"If you lose one or two nurses, that makes a difference," said Audrey Snyder, PhD, RN, president of the Rural Nurse Organization and professor at University of North Carolina Greensboro's School of Nursing. "These hospitals are small hospitals and they don't have a large nurse workforce."

Years of low patient volume, high numbers of uninsured patients and government-funded payers prompted a record number of rural hospital closures in 2020, according to data from the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

Meanwhile, 216 rural hospitals are currently at high risk of closure, said Brock Slabach, chief operations officer with the National Rural Health Association.

"The rural hospital workforce has always been a challenge," Mr. Slabach told NBC. "What COVID was uniquely suited to do was take advantage of every fracture and widen it significantly and make it even harder to cope with demands being placed on them."

Most demand isn't even directly related to COVID-19 patients, Susan Salka, CEO of AMN Healthcare Services, said on an earnings call last month. She noted leaves of absence, clinician fatigue, normal patient volumes rising and operating room backlog instead, adding, "Our clients are telling us that this is unlikely to change anytime soon."

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