Traveling Our Own Road

Imagine getting paid to work in the field you love while also enjoying opportunities to travel around the country. That, in a nutshell, is what the field of travel nursing is all about. With no end to the national nursing shortage yet in sight, RNs have unlimited opportunities to work in health care facilities throughout the United States as travel nurses, accepting short-term assignments and making valuable contributions by filling critical staffing gaps.

For minority nurses, travel nursing offers an exciting chance to add variety to their careers and serve diverse patient populations while traveling to a variety of locales. Trilby Barnes, RNC, president and CEO of Medi-Lend Nursing Services, Inc., one of the country’s few minority-owned travel nursing agencies, says there is a growing demand for travel nurses of color in many parts of the nation.

“[Ethnic minority nurses] have [cultural] insights other nurses might not have,” explains Barnes, who is African American. “They are able to relate better to patients who share their same background, which helps put these patients at ease.

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“Travel nurses [of color] can dispel myths about minorities and help the nursing profession to become more culturally sensitive,” she continues. “Our [firm’s] nurses receive exceptional on-the-job education by working in different states and facilities and learning a broad spectrum of treatment modalities.”

For nurses suffering from wanderlust, or who are seeking a change of scenery, travel nursing does indeed provide many personal and professional opportunities. The field also offers excellent perks, including bonuses of up to $6,000, company-paid housing, and excellent salaries and health insurance plans.

Travel nurses take temporary assignments at facilities within their home state or in other states where their skills are in demand. The National Association of Traveling Nurses (NATN) estimates there are approximately 255,000 travelers working throughout the U.S., particularly in areas hit hardest by the nursing shortage, such as Arizona, California, Florida and Hawaii.

Expand Your Horizons

Barnes recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of Medi-Lend, an agency she founded in 1994 with just one employee besides herself. Today her multi-million dollar company, which is based in New Orleans with branch offices in Texas and California, has over 2,000 nurses in its registry. In 2004 she received the National Black Nurses Association’s Nurse Entrepreneur of the Year award.

Even though travel nursing offers many undeniable rewards, minority nurses appear to be even more underrepresented in this field than they are in traditional full-time hospital jobs. Barnes hopes minority nurse-owned agencies such as hers can encourage more nurses of color to consider travel nursing as a career option.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about the travel nursing industry,” she says. “Many nurses believe you need to commit for several years and travel constantly. But the reality is, you can sign on for a summer and travel with your family. Our assignments range anywhere from two weeks to three years.”

Barnes describes the ideal travel nurse as someone with agency experience who is flexible, likes the challenge of working in many different hospitals and wants to learn the business side of nursing. Experience in a specialty field, such as critical care or neonatal, is desirable but not mandatory.

“A lot of our nurses view this as a working vacation,” Barnes adds. “[By gaining exposure to different types of hospitals in different parts of the country], they are able to learn more about the nursing field and benefit from opportunities they might never have working as a full-time staff nurse.”

While Barnes would like to see more minority nurses enter the field of travel nursing, she knows that the lack of diversity among traveling RNs is part of a much bigger picture: the overall underrepresentation of minorities in all areas of health care. In September 2004 the Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce reported that despite the nation’s growing diversity, the number of minorities entering the health care field is stagnant. Together, African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians make up more than 25% of the U.S. population, but only 9% of the nation’s nurses, 6% of doctors and 5% of dentists.

Barnes believes that travel nursing can increase the visibility of minority nurses around the country, which helps provide more role models to encourage young people of color to consider nursing careers. “Travel nurses can address these [health care workforce] disparities by working in geographic areas where there are many patients of color,” she says. “I think it’s hard for many people to envision going into a health care career if they have never seen a doctor or a nurse of their same ethnicity.”

 

A Unique Perspective

Although there are only a handful of travel nursing agencies that are owned and operated by nurses of color, these firms occupy an important niche in the marketplace: They are uniquely attuned to the needs and concerns of minority nurses, as well as their special strengths. For example, these agencies can help nurses of color determine where in the country their skills might best be utilized to help diverse populations. They are also sensitive to issues such as a nurse’s reluctance to be sent on an assignment where he or she would be the only person of color at the facility.

Rick Martinez, BSN, RN, president of MedTrust, LLC, a health care staffing agency based in San Antonio, Texas, started his company four years ago with himself and his wife Lisa serving as the first two travel nurses. Today MedTrust is a rapidly growing firm that specializes in providing travel, per diem and permanent health care staff to acute and sub-acute care facilities throughout the country.

“When I graduated from nursing school in 1995, nurses had the option of either working in a doctor’s office or in a hospital,” says Martinez. “Travel nursing provides nurses with a new and exciting career option.”

Some of MedTrust’s nurses travel full time; others take on occasional free-lance assignments. “One of the biggest motivators for travel nurses is that they can care for patients without getting involved in hospital politics,” Martinez points out. Since travel nurses typically work three 12-hour shifts, four days a week, they also have a significant amount of free time to tour the different locales in which they are working.

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While his agency employs many minority nurses, Martinez says he would love to see more nurses of color enter the travel field. “The personal and financial benefits for travel nurses are huge,” he emphasizes. “This field allows nurses to take their career to a whole new level.”

Based on his own experience as a minority nurse, Martinez believes nurses of color can find satisfaction working with minority-owned agencies that take each nurse’s skills and ethnicity under consideration. “I’m not going to send nurses to a job or an area where they would feel uncomfortable working,” he says. “We want our nurses to work where their cultural diversity will be seen as an asset.”