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Traveling health care professionals a growing industry niche

October 7, 1997

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (AP) _ Linda Cugini is a traveler, and not just because she has lived in seven places from Florida to Michigan in the last two years.

The 29-year-old occupational therapist is among thousands of other ``travelers″ in the health care industry who move every few weeks or months.

Cugini, a Boston-area native, stayed 12 weeks at Johnson City Medical Center before departing recently for a hospital in Florida.

She admits she is tiring of packing everything into her Honda, but ``I always say that,″ she says.

The reason she keeps going?. ``It’s exciting,″ she says.

Travelers include therapists, nurses, even doctors. They are used to fill a shortage in a field, such as physical therapy; to plug holes while a permanent replacement is sought; or to cover while a staffer is on vacation or leave.

Travelers work for companies that contract with health care facilities. The companies pay the travelers’ salaries, and provide benefits, including housing and, sometimes, a retirement plan.

Most traveling therapists earn $25 to $30 per hour, plus benefits. That’s about $5 per hour more than most therapists with a permanent job, says Pam Rice, owner of Dallas-based Specialty Medical Services, which specializes in foreign-trained therapists.

Alison Reichert, director of marketing for TravCorp., a Boston-based company that nearly alone in the field twenty years ago, says that today there are about 30 companies in the traveling health care business.

There are about 8,000 permanent travelers, and up to 20,000 other people who drift in and out of the industry, she says.

The number is expected to grow as the population ages and more health care professionals are needed. Also, with many hospitals looking to cut costs, more are expected to turn to temporary workers.

``As all the health care industry moves into different areas, I see the market continuing to grow,″ Rice says. ``I’m not concerned about my business going away.″

While there is no vocal opposition to the hiring of part-time health care workers, there are some concerns.

Russ Miller, senior vice president of the Tennessee Medical Association, says travelers can hurt continuity of care for patients receiving long-term care.

But Carol Hicks, travel director for Traveling Nurses PRN of Colorado Springs, Colo., says travelers provide a valuable service for many hospitals, particularly those that have cut permanent staff and see a surge in patients, and those in less-desirable areas.

``Lots of rural facilities have trouble keeping staff,″ she says.

Many travelers are young, single and motivated by a desire to see the country. They must be licensed in a particular state, but the companies that hire them usually take care of that.

Michael Trass, a 23-year-old physical therapist, left New Zealand 15 months ago and spent a year as a traveler in England. He then spent three months in Johnson City before moving on to Indiana.

``My highest priority is seeing some of the country,″ he says.

Traveling doctors fall mainly into two categories _ those who have just completed their training and want to keep their skills sharp while they look for a job, and older doctors who don’t want the hassles of managed care paperwork, said Frank Phillips, senior vice president of Weatherby Locums Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Travelers say packing up every few weeks is tough. Anytime Cugini buys something new, she says she must throw away something else so she can fit all her belongings in her car.

And the work schedule can be hectic.

``Travelers get the brunt of the less desirable _ holidays and weekends,″ says Susan Cranford, manager of acute rehabilitation services at Johnson City Medical Center.

But travelers learn by seeing so many different health care operations and workers. And they in turn use their experiences to provide an education to health care workers who otherwise might not be exposed to such concepts.

``It’s a learning experience both ways,″ Cranford says.

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