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    Traveling healthcare flourishes in spite of national economy

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    Photo: Getty Images/Shakirov
    According to the nightly news, the U.S. economy could be heading straight for a recession—or already is in one. While the prices of oil and gasoline steadily climb, housing values drop equally fast. The ripple effect from these circumstances is also making headlines as the cost of such staples as bread, milk, and eggs rises. Then, there is the fact that the average family holds $7,000 in credit card debt.

    So, have you felt the budget crunch with your own personal finances? Have economic conditions affected where and how you select assignments? How has the healthcare travel industry fared during this finicky fiscal time? To answer these and other questions, Healthcare Traveler asked two industry representatives and one mobile clinician for their thoughts about any financial fallout and how to make the most of assignments today.

    Record numbers

    Throughout most of the 21st century, America has flourished. Until recently, homeowners happily watched their dwellings increase in value at record rates. Investors cashed in on Wall Street's sustainable growth with only minor blips here and there. What's more is that healthcare professionals of all specialties enjoyed a marketplace in high demand of their skills.

    So, what happened? The first signs of the economy unraveling came a few years ago when gasoline prices started to move upward. At first, there were small increases, but as crude oil prices began setting new records—quadrupling over the past 6 years—drivers dished out more dollars to fill their tanks. In 2006, the national average price for regular gas logged in at $2.62. A year later, that average reached $2.84 per gallon, and the latest figures from AAA show a national average of $3.39. (At press time, Californians were dealing with the highest prices in the nation for regular, at $3.80 a gallon.)

    This progression has not always been subtle. Rather, the leap has at times been double digits—AAA reported a 19-cent increase over 2 weeks in February. "

    With such significant changes over a relatively short period, it is no wonder Americans are holding their breath to see what will happen next at the pumps. A recent national survey conducted for Parade magazine revealed that the price of fuel tops the list of people's financial concerns (39%). Their worry appears to be well placed as industry analysts predict summer travel demands will drive the prices up even further.

    Paying off gas costs. For those who drive long distances due to work commitments, like healthcare travelers, the price at the pump is a much bigger deal. Micki Marsh, RN, knows this firsthand. "For the past 2 years, I have been driving a 38-foot motor home to each of my assignments, and diesel fuel prices have consistently gone up," she reports. "In fact, they have reached exorbitant levels." AAA reports the average diesel price has risen more than $1.17 since last year, with New Yorkers recently paying $4.44 a gallon.

    Micki began her nursing career 13 years ago, and it was at her full-time job that she encountered a respiratory therapist who told her about the travel lifestyle. Instead of accepting a traditional 13-week contract, however, Micki, the therapist, and the therapist's wife all took off for the Middle East.

    "I was part of a private contract serving a hospital in Saudi Arabia," she explains. "I was there for 2 years, and what I learned is that I really love traveling. I thought, Why not come back to the States and travel in my own country?"

    That is exactly what Micki did. Since 2002, the nurse traveler has made stops in Washington, California, Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee, and North Carolina. And she just wrapped up an assignment at St. Anthony's Medical Center in St. Louis, Missouri. For the majority of her mobile career, she has worked with HRN Services Inc., a staffing company located in Beverly Hills, California.

    The reason Micki has opted to tote her home to each locale instead of accepting the company-provided housing is simply out of preference. "All of my things go with me everywhere," she says. "I do not have to worry about someone in the apartment above me making too much noise, or being charged extra to bring my cats, Habibi and Tango, with me. Plus, there is a tax benefit because the motor home is my primary residence."

    That comfort comes with a price. "The drive from North Carolina to St. Louis totaled $1,700 in fuel costs," says Micki. "My company offers a relocation allowance, which helps, but it is still a bit of sticker shock to me. I usually start off a new assignment watching my spending extra closely to pay off the gas costs as quickly as possible. Also, I tend to select opportunities that are on the higher end of the pay scale. Fortunately, my next contract is only a few hours' drive from here, so I will not have to fill my tank as often."

    Near or far. While recreational vehicles typically consume more gasoline than passenger cars, anyone driving today feels the pressure the miles are putting on their wallets. In response, some mobile practitioners are opting to stay closer to home.

    "We have seen a decline among physical therapists (PTs) wanting to go long distances for assignments," says Denese Nelson, a provider representative for Destination Healthcare Staffing, based in Salt Lake City, Utah. "Distance did not use to be that much of a factor. There were individuals who would willingly drive from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again for various contracts. But that is not as popular anymore."

    The situation for nurses seems to be somewhat less affected. "We have not seen much change in the number of nurses who travel distances for assignments compared with those who prefer to stay local," says Beth Machado, senior vice president of recruitment for NursesRx. "However, I do not see gas prices as a direct cause. Rather, I think some clinicians choose to be near their families, or just may not be ready to venture far away when they first start off in this career alternative. Still, we did raise our gas benefit last year to support the increases."

    Another phenomenon at play is that not all cities and states are affected to the same degree. Some local economies are in better shape than others, and this is influencing where travelers choose to go, or where they wish to leave.

    "Places like California, Colorado, and Hawaii have always been among the more frequently requested locations," says Denese. "But we have noticed therapists are not accepting these opportunities as often because the cost of living and gas prices tend to be higher there. There are also states that are not rebounding very well, and we are hearing from providers who want to leave those areas and practice elsewhere. This is all on a state-by-state basis."

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    Anne Baye Ericksen
    Anne Baye Ericksen is a freelance writer based in Simi Valley, California.