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By TOM HAYNIE

Traditional temporary staffing has been around since the mid-1940s. Most hiring managers are familiar with how it works, and a surprising number of employees holding permanent jobs will tell you they got their start working for a temporary employment agency. You will find temporary employees filling positions in almost every industry and in companies in size from multinational conglomerates all the way down to mom-and-pop operations that have one employee working seasonal or part-time shifts.

Temporary employees fill positions in manufacturing, office staffing, legal and accounting, government, food service, transportation, etc. The list goes on. However, one industry sector has only recently converted to the benefits of temporary or “traveling” employees to fill gaps and create efficiencies. It’s only been in the past few years that staffing agencies have begun specializing in the health care industry.

The recession has been a major contributor to this transition. Staffing companies that have struggled with finding and keeping clients during the past few years have seen an increase in the demand for specialties in health care.

Venturing into the health care waters is not without its unique risks as well as rewards for both the staffing firm and the traveling health care worker.

Health care is perhaps the one industry that has survived the recession relatively unscathed. The demand for health care professionals at nearly all levels continues to outpace supply. Since May, 2010, the industry has added more than 24,000 new jobs each month, widening the gap between the need for medical staff at all levels and the supply of available professionals.

Over the next 15 to 20 years, the shortage of health care professionals is projected to worsen. Licensed health care professionals at nearly all levels will face an aging population with increasing medical needs. This demand for workers will give greater power to health care professionals in deciding when and where to work as well as the expectation of increased benefits and job satisfaction.

One result of this increase in power is that a previously under-recognized category is emerging as one of the best kept secrets of the industry. Traveling health care professionals — licensed individuals who are willing to travel and take on temporary assignments in a variety of settings and locations — are taking their place in one of the fastest-growing and most sought-after segments.

To allow for the influx of health care professionals who travel across state lines to fill the flexing demand, states have created “locum tenens” laws. The term “locum tenens” is Latin for “to hold the place of, to substitute for.”

It got its start back in the early 1970s when the University of Utah received a federal grant to research physician staffing services to rural health clinics in areas of the Western United States. Because many hospital administrators and physicians saw the benefit of locum tenens physician assistance, the program caught on.

From this humble beginning, there are thousands of physicians and other licensed health care professionals working under locum tenens contracts with companies that provide medical staffing services. Clients of these companies include hospitals, group practices, outpatient medical centers, community health centers, government and military facilities and correctional institutions. The industry continues to grow as more health care professionals choose to travel.

The atmosphere of today’s workforce is trending toward balancing work and life. Flexibility is a key factor in retaining employees. Telecommuting coupled with flexibility is giving the old standard of a permanent position a run. States that accommodate traveling health care professionals by implementing laws and regulations that allow for cross border acceptance of licensure see the benefits of better care for their citizens during high demand and low supply periods.

Recent studies show that flexible schedules, travel opportunities, the opportunity to earn extra income and additional clinical experience are the major factors when deciding to choose short-term assignments. Traveling or supplemental medical staffing is attractive to health care facilities for a variety of reasons, including:

n Hospitals, groups and clinics from small solo practices to large health care systems need staffing assistance.

n Permanent staff will take vacations, sabbaticals or other long-term absences.

n Peak seasons create a demand to supplement staffing needs.

There is work available in every state. Thousands of locum tenens staffing contracts are available on any given day. Originally, the industry began to serve “snowbirds” moving from Northern to Southern states in the winter. Many of these snowbirds take with them increased medical needs that create a seasonal burden on Southern states in the winter and have the opposite effect on the states they left.

As traveling health care caught on it grew from a flurry of activity until it snowballed from its humble beginning into an avalanche of opportunity. By now, every state in the country recognizes the need and benefits of traveling health care. Trends show that the health care staffing needs will continue to grow.

The federal government has added to the demand for certain segments of the industry through the various laws and regulations that have been implemented in recent years. For example, the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees special education and related services to all children. Coupled with early detection and treatment, a demand for physical, speech, occupational and other therapists in schools has resulted.

While school-based experience may not be required, a strong pediatric background may be essential. Therapists should be prepared to stay at least a semester if not for an entire school year. Children sometimes take more time to become acquainted with and trust their therapists, and schools want continuity of care.

Some analysts predict that there will be a shortage of up to 100,000 pharmacists over the next decade. Most patients are familiar with the nearly 90 percent of pharmacists who practice in retail outlets or hospitals.

There are increasing needs for pharmacists in insurance companies, patient consulting on potential drug interactions, nuclear pharmacy and other emerging practices. Lately, the pharmacy industry has begun to embrace traveling practitioners as well.

If you think traveling health care opportunities may be right for you, here are some suggestions to help you make your decision:

n Think about where you want to work. If you live in Las Vegas, with its hot summers and mild winters, you may find an adjustment to Minnesota somewhat difficult. On the other hand, if snow skiing in the winter is your passion, Florida may leave you wanting. Your first location might be best if it is similar to the one you’re used to. Once you have settled in to traveling, taking on a different climate should be exciting. Also, check out the amenities. Are there entertainment or recreational opportunities that will satisfy your off duty needs?

n When you choose a staffing agency make sure you do your homework. Investigate several before making your final decision. They can vary significantly in the types of assignments, benefits, locations and work settings.

n Do they make it easy for you to keep up with required continuing education credits and training? Being on the road most of the time can make it difficult to stay current with licensure requirements. A good agency will see that you have the resources to maintain all of your certifications.

n Get out of the house. One of the most quoted benefits of traveling is the opportunity to see different places and experience different cultures (even within the U.S.). Don’t waste your days off by sitting in front of the TV or Internet.

Of course, once you’ve decided to take the plunge, there are preparations you’ll need to consider. As a permanent worker, after you have provided copies of your various required certifications and licenses, you can put them away. However, if taking on a variety of assignments appeals to you, you will frequently need quick access to everything that got you that permanent position.

You are going to need copies of all of your documentation. You may have to prove you have that education, certification and training more often. Keep a file of good paper copies and keep all of them with you on your laptop or a small flash drive in PDF format for quick printing.

Keeping your resume up to date with your most recent assignments will be essential, so put a Word document on that flash drive that you can update quickly. Keep your immunizations up to date and carry documented evidence.

Be prepared to undergo background checks for both criminal and misdemeanor issues. If you feel a need to stick it to the Las Vegas police department for that parking ticket you didn’t think you deserved, you might want to reconsider and get it taken care of before it puts a mark on your otherwise stellar history.

When you do take on that assignment, stay humble. Show that you are willing to take direction and ask questions. The permanent staff may have an initial resistance to the “newcomer,” especially in small facilities or where they are not used to using supplemental staff on a regular basis. So your attitude of respect for the charge nurse will go a long way to mitigate any concerns.

Remember, the agency that places you will have developed a reputation of providing only the most highly qualified candidates to their client hospitals and clinics. If you get a bad review it could have a negative impact on your opportunities for future assignments.

Although some hospitals and administrators have had mixed feelings about the quality of traveling health care professionals in the past, those biases have evaporated in the shadow of studies on nursing that have shown that traveling professionals provide care as well or better than permanent staff in many situations. These studies indicate that where large numbers of supplemental nurse staff are used there tends to be a lower instance of quality problems.

Traveling and permanent health care professionals receive the same education and training. Traveling professionals are frequently within 10 years of receiving their education and may be knowledgeable of more current medical practices, and supplemental nurses are more likely to hold baccalaureate or higher degrees.

Quick research on the Internet will identify several venues for locating quality traveling health care opportunities. An example of the companies available, AYA Healthcare provides several resources for finding the best travel nursing positions.

It offers four-week to 52-week assignments throughout the United States. Its website states it offers assignments that include furnished housing in safe neighborhoods near hospitals, medical benefits, a 401(k) plan, relocation assistance and licensure reimbursement. In addition, more than 400 CEU courses are available over the Internet.

The industry has spawned its own professional staffing organization, the National Association of Travel Healthcare Organizations. NATHO’s website identifies it as “a nonprofit association founded in 2008 to promote ethical business practices in the travel health care industry, setting the gold standard for conduct that is aligned among member agencies on behalf of travel health care candidates and clients.”

NATHO offers the following advice to both licensed professionals and health care facilities when searching for a quality travel health care company:

n Is the company a member of NATHO? NATHO is dedicated to establishing a set of service standards among travel health care companies. Member companies are held to a strict code of ethics.

n Is the company JCAHO certified? The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations has a specific accreditation for staffing companies in the health care industry.

n Does the company provide professional liability and workers compensation insurance for the travel health care professionals they place?

n What is the company’s history? Do they have the financial resources to pay their travel health care professionals?

n Does the company offer the services necessary to ensure all details are taken care of when the travel health care professionals arrive to work (i.e. credentialing, benefits and housing arrangements)?

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