How Travel Nurses Impact Safe Nurse Staffing

Hospital Rooms Can Also Spread Disease

By Jennifer Mitchell, contributor

Understaffing is a major problem in America's hospitals, as many nurses have seen firsthand. The extent of this crisis was recently revealed by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) in its 2018 Hospital Survey on Patient Safety Culture. The AHRQ surveyed 382,834 hospital staff across the country, and only 52 percent of respondents said their hospital had enough staff to handle the workload. Since understaffing poses risks to both patients and nurses, hospitals and other facilities may rely on travel nurses to help maintain safe nurse staffing levels.

How travel nurse staffing helps hospitals

Travel nurses are incredibly valuable to hospitals, as Becker's Hospital Review explains. When hospitals have immediate staffing needs, they can bring in highly qualified travel nurses much faster than they could hire full-time nurses. Hospitals that rely on travel nurse staffing can quickly adjust to changing patient loads and maintain safe nurse staffing levels.

The effects of nurse staffing levels on patient care are significant. Patients aren't the only ones who benefit from safe nurse staffing levels: Nurses do, too. A study published in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health examined the change in rates of occupational injuries and illnesses among hospital nurses after California passed a law mandating minimum nurse-to-patient ratios. The study estimated that the law reduced these injuries and illnesses by 31.6 percent in RNs and 33.6 percent in LPNs. 

These decreases are significant, but not surprising. When hospitals have safe nurse staffing levels, nurses don't have as much time pressure during procedures, and they have more time to help other nurses.

Current laws affecting nurse staffing

The American Nursing Association (ANA) reports that current federal regulations require hospitals that take Medicare to have "adequate numbers of licensed registered nurses." Since this language is vague, some states have passed their own laws to ensure hospitals have enough nurses on the floor.

Nationwide, only 14 states have passed laws that relate to safe nurse staffing levels, the ANA notes. In seven states, including Illinois and Texas, hospitals' staffing plans must be created by nurse-driven committees. In five states, including New York and New Jersey, hospitals are required to disclose and/or publicly report their staffing levels.

Only one state, California, requires minimum nurse-to-patient ratios in every unit. According to the United Nurses Associations of California, this ratio ranges from 1:1 in trauma to 1:8 in postpartum. Massachusetts passed a law that requires a 1:1 or 1:2 nurse to-patient ratio in its ICUs, though unlike California's law, it doesn't address other units. The ANA continues to advocate for RN staffing laws.

New laws affecting nurse staffing in 2020

Federally, a new nurse staffing law may be on the horizon. In May 2019, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) introduced the Nurse Staffing Standards for Hospital Patient Safety and Quality Care Act in the House. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) brought an identical bill to the Senate, the Library of Congress reports. Their bill seeks to establish minimum nurse staffing levels in hospital units. If passed, some of the nurse-to-patient ratios it would require include:

  • 1:1 in trauma emergency units
  • 1:2 in critical care units
  • 1:3 in emergency room units
  • 1:4 in medical-surgical units
  • 1:5 in rehabilitation units
  • 1:6 in postpartum units

The bill is still in the committee stage, and to become law, it would need to be passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President. This process must be completed before the current term of Congress ends on January 3, 2021, the Office of the Clerk explains. If the bill isn't passed in time, lawmakers who are elected in the 2020 election may choose to re-introduce it in the next term.

Travel nurses play an important role in helping hospitals maintain safe nurse staffing levels. Since appropriate staffing levels protect the safety of both patients and nurses, travel nurses are incredibly valuable. To find your next travel nursing opportunity, visit


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