June 1, 2022

UW Health creates innovative program to address nursing shortage

Madison, Wis. – At the beginning of 2022, the omicron surge turned an ongoing staffing shortage into a full crisis for health systems across the country, including UW Health.

Not only was the pandemic impacting staffing, but dozens of nurses were leaving each month to become travel nurses; a lucrative option for nurses who can travel to short-term positions in hospitals around the country, according to Rudy Jackson, chief nurse executive, UW Health. To fill some of those holes, UW Health relied on many of those same travel agencies.

“Using an external agency isn’t ideal,” Jackson said. “It is costly to bring in travelers and it means bringing in nurses who might not be familiar with our systems, our teams and our patients’ unique needs.”

With input from frontline nurses and some innovative thinking, UW Health designed an internal nurse traveler program. Those nurses willing to pick up an extra shift per week for six weeks would be paid an extra $100 per hour above base pay for those shifts.

The program has been very successful, according to Jackson.

“Within days of announcing the program, more than 90 percent of our open nursing shifts were filled,” he said. “This has been great financially for the nurses who volunteered, but it has also been great for nursing staff working their regular shifts because they are confident shifts will be filled by their colleagues, our remarkable UW Health nurses.”

This also helped with retention according to Michele McClure, chief nursing officer, University Hospital, UW Health, who led the development of the program.

“We saw staff sign up for internal ‘traveler’ shifts instead of leaving to become travelers,” McClure said. “As we work to hire more nurses for our long-term needs, this program supports our talented nurses and the patients who need them now.”

Beginning on Jan. 16, qualified nurses could commit to working six “extra” 12-hour shifts within a certain timeframe. During this “traveler” shift, the nurse receives $100 per hour above their base pay for the full 12 hours worked. Any individual working a travel shift is placed wherever there is need within the health system, as long as they have the expertise required for that area. The program was primarily designed for nurses who work in inpatient settings, but nurses in other areas with the relevant experience also qualify.

Nurses have reported the program as a welcome relief. According to Jonathan Milton, RN, care team leader in the Cardiac ICU at University Hospital, it could not have come at a better time.

“Not only did this program combat staffing issues we were seeing, but it also showed that leadership listened to nurses,” he said. “They heard us, and this was a powerful way for them to show support.”

Milton also noted an added benefit that nurses who participate get to see how other departments work, expanding perspectives and gaining experience in different areas.

“Being an internal traveler lets us walk a mile in other nurses’ shoes,” he said.

The traveler program also continues to be adjusted as nurses provide feedback and the situational needs change.