Deborah R. Dakins – Traveling RTs presents Part I of a two-part series on traveling radiologic technologists.

A 15% vacancy rate for radiologic technologist positions in the U.S. has created a new cottage industry for RTs who are willing to relocate for short-term assignments. Traveling RTs can satisfy their wanderlust while raking in a salary up to 50% higher than that of their permanent counterparts.

Demand is high for traveling RTs in all specialty areas, said Carlos Hagler, director of operations for allied staffing at CompHealth in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

„There’s a shortage of people going into training programs, and there are more RTs retiring every year,“ he said. „Imaging volumes are increasing, and people who are specialized in CT, MRI, radiation therapy, and mammography are in especially high demand.“

Since many RTs sign on with multiple staffing agencies for traveler positions — and because most hospitals use a combination of registry and travelers to fill staffing needs — it’s not known how much of the current workforce traveling RTs represent. But most large community hospitals and academic centers are providing full services only because they are hiring travelers, said Kathy Tabor-McEwan, a senior radiology manager at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who handles contracts for temporary and permanent staff.

Traveling shoes may not fit all RTs. The life can be lonely and the work demanding. Travelers can sometimes find themselves working in unfriendly environments where they are resented by coworkers. The key quality of any RT considering the traveling life is flexibility, Hagler said.

„You walk into a facility where you don’t know a soul, receive your orientation, and have to fit into that hospital environment,“ he said. „You can’t try to change everything the hospital is doing. Flexibility and people skills are a big part of the job.“

Typically, staffing agencies work with RTs and hospitals to ensure the right match. Most assignments last three months. During that time, a good agency will also conduct regular follow-up phone calls to make sure both travelers and the hospital are happy with each other.

Denise Barron-Potter worked as a traveling mammographer for four years before taking time off to study radiation therapy. She plans to do it again once her education is complete. Barron-Potter echoes the need for flexibility.

„I love traveling because it’s a great learning experience — if you have an open mind,“ she said. „Being able to work with different doctors, technologists, and equipment has made me a better mammographer. I’ve been able to share my knowledge with others at each facility where I’ve worked.“

That sentiment is shared by numerous other traveling RTs who contributed comments — anonymously — to this story.

„I’ve traveled for one year now and have never loved my chosen profession more,“ wrote one RT via e-mail. Another commented, „The pros outweigh the cons by pounds.“

But travelers do need to step lightly in fractious environments, added another RT via e-mail.

„Overworked techs, underpaid techs, poor management, new management, union versus non-union, there are any number of issues going on at the facilities where you will work,“ she wrote. „The difference is, as a traveler, these are not your problems.“

Staffing agencies have an obligation to make sure hospitals are hiring travelers for the right reasons, not simply to cover the shifts that no one else wants.

„Travelers have to be treated with respect and as part of the team, and 99% of the time they are,“ Hagler said. „Hospitals really do appreciate travelers because without them, their employees would be working overtime, shifts would be shortened, and procedures delayed.“

Would-be travelers should make sure to thoroughly vet prospective employers, Barron-Potter said, with a range of questions that span everything from onsite equipment to work shifts that need coverage. Obtain as many details about the position as possible, she said. For example, if the job involves rotating among multiple areas, be upfront about your skills in a range of environments.

„Honesty is always the best policy, even if it means losing an opportunity,“ Barron-Potter said. „Three months can be awfully long if you put yourself in a miserable position.“

Consider the intangibles as well, Barron-Potter said. Be realistic about your comfort level when it comes having qualifications questioned. Travelers must be able to adapt to change — and the multiple different protocols that will be encountered at each facility.

Not all staffing agencies are created equal. Be sure to compare the benefits of each before signing on. Some provide healthcare benefits from day one; at other agencies, these don’t kick in for 90 days. A number of agencies also offer retention bonuses as well as 401(k) plans.

Finally, consider all the pros and cons before leaving your permanent job, Barron-Potter cautions. It’s important to understand the motivation for becoming a traveler.

„If it’s to escape a bad job or coworker, you will definitely run into the same situation elsewhere,“ she said. presents Part II of a two-part series on traveling radiologic technologists.

The use of traveling radiologic technologists to stem staffing shortages can mean headaches for radiology administrators, who cite woes ranging from budget overruns to morale problems when traveling RTs are hired.

Sharp Healthcare in San Diego is an integrated delivery system with five hospitals and 25 outpatient facilities. At the system, the use of travelers and registry technologists has pushed salary expenditures million into the red, said Annemarie Sundquist, manager of outpatient imaging.

„We only use travelers if we absolutely have to,“ she said. „We’re focusing on recruiting and retaining permanent employees, with a goal of achieving a 100% permanent RT workforce by March 2003.“

Some administrators suggest that the RT shortage might not be as dire as it seems. After all, staffing agencies seem to have plenty of travelers willing to fill short-term positions, Sundquist said.

„From the staffing-agency side, this is a growing industry, but from our side, it’s a stop-gap measure,“ she said. „It makes you wonder whether there really is a shortage, since agencies are always able to find someone if you are willing to pay the price.“

Administrators can negotiate some aspects of traveler contracts with staffing agencies, but there’s no getting around the high cost. Over the course of a year, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center paid 0,000 for four traveling RTs who spent three months each at the facility, said Dr. Monte Clinton, administrative director of radiology at the Lebanon, NH, facility. Clinton discussed Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s experiences with traveling RTs at the 2002 American Healthcare Radiology Administrators meeting in New Orleans.

A related problem is that staff morale can plummet once permanent employees learn how much a facility is willing to pay for travelers. Funds expended include not just salaries but also perks such as housing and car allowances.

„The emotion on this issue is really high,“ Sundquist said. „It has caused tremendous morale problems.“

And while money may be the most obvious issue, it isn’t the only one. Travelers can be labor-intensive, so expect to spend more time training and monitoring performance, said Kathy Tabor-McEwan, a senior manager at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who handles contracts for the department’s temporary and permanent staff.

„As is the case with anyone you hire, you have to invest time and energy to help them understand your expectations,“ she said. „You’re constantly training new staff. And even though most of these RTs have traveled and are adaptable, they do get bored.“

After some trial and error with traveling RTs, Tabor-McEwan learned another valuable lesson. Contracts need to be written with exit clauses in case an RT fails to meet expectations for defined reasons.

„We’ve done that on multiple occasions,“ she said.

A facility can easily spend ,000 a month on traveling RTs. The trade-off is the ability to provide comprehensive care. Managers will know they need to hire travelers by evaluating the facility’s ratio of staffing to imaging demand, she said.

„At Mass General, our priority is providing patient care,“ Tabor-McEwan said. „You have to make a decision with your leadership. You’re either not going to provide a certain level of care, or you are going to employ travelers to help you.“

Before hiring traveling RTs, let the permanent staff know you are doing so — and why, she said. Help the staff understand that because travelers will be on the scene, the department will be able to operate at full capacity without excessive overtime.

In San Diego, Sundquist often involves permanent RT staff in the traveler hiring process, seeking their input during interview panels. That has led to some creative problem solving among staff, and, in two cases, averted the hiring of travelers, she said.

„Instead of bringing in someone who may not have the same level of skill, expertise, or buy-in, they would rather work overtime or come up another solution,“ she said. „That’s a win-win.“

The best way to manage traveling RTs, these administrators say, is to avoid having to hire them in the first place. Retention is key to staffing, according to Clinton.

„If you can keep what you’ve got, you are really ahead of the game,“ he said.

Focusing on retention by making sure employees know that you value them is critical, Tabor-McEwan said. The occasional thank-you letter or group pizza party can go a long way towards strengthening manager-RT relations.

„Look at your salary structure to make sure you’re competitive,“ she said. „When you consider the dollars spent on temps versus the money you could put into your own permanent staff, you realize that there has to be a balance.“

By Deborah R. Dakins contributing writer
November 5, 2002


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