Nurses play a vital role in providing healthcare to millions of Americans in small, rural, and often underserved communities across the U.S. In fact, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), more than 60 million Americans —about one-fifth of the U.S. population—live in rural areas and are in need of quality healthcare.
As the population shift from urban centers to suburban and rural areas continues on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, more nurses are needed in rural healthcare facilities. For travel nurses, this can provide rewarding job opportunities across a wide range of specialties and healthcare settings.
So, what does rural nursing entail, and what can nurses expect when taking travel assignments with rural hospitals? Learn more about rural travel nursing jobs in our guide below.
Nursing in rural areas involves helping patients who live in geographically isolated locations, at times with limited access to healthcare. Approximately 70% of areas designated as “primary medical health professional shortage areas” are in rural or partially rural areas, where patients tend to have a wide range of illness, injury, or other health needs.
With smaller teams of physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to deliver care, clinical practice in rural areas affords rural nurses the opportunity to operate at the top of their licenses, stretch and grow their experiences and skillsets, and often function with increased autonomy relative to what’s typical in large hospitals in urban population centers.
Traditionally, physicians and nurses have gravitated to healthcare organizations in large metropolitan areas where populations are larger, pay can be higher, and benefits can be more generous. Urban areas also typically offer more housing, entertainment or activities, and educational opportunities.
While these perks can make it difficult for smaller community hospitals and clinics to attract workers, there are a great number of career-building and personal experiences available to travel nurses in rural communities.
In fact, hospitals in some rural communities are seeking to deliver care in new ways, such as 24/7 ambulance and outpatient clinics, free-standing emergency departments (EDs), and transforming into micro-hospitals. To provide this care, healthcare staff with broad training and creative approaches are needed.
While many specialty units are typically available in larger metropolitan hospitals, rural hospitals are generally smaller with fewer specialized departments. Therefore, rural community nursing calls for flexibility, ability to work with multiple proficiencies, and knowing how to care for many types of patients, including patients of all ages from children to adults and the elderly.
In light of this, nurses with depth of experience in high-demand nursing specialty areas can usually command more generous pay packages and/or sign-on bonuses. Some of the most-needed travel nurse specialties across rural areas include:
According to an analysis conducted by RegisteredNursing.org, California and Texas will have the largest nursing shortages by 2030, followed by New Jersey, South Carolina, Alaska, Georgia, South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota, and New Hampshire*.
Job opportunities in these states for travel nurses exist in a variety of clinical settings, including children’s hospitals, critical access and community hospitals, Magnet-designated hospitals, nursing homes and hospice care facilities, mental health and addiction treatment centers, dialysis facilities, imaging and radiology centers, birth centers, orthopedic rehabilitation centers, and long-term care hospitals.
*Apart from Alaska and California, the top ten states with the biggest nursing supply gap listed in RegisteredNursing.org’s “The States with the Largest Nursing Shortages” are part of the Nurse Licensure Compact, making it easy for travel nurses to obtain multistate licensure.
While rural healthcare work may not be for everyone—especially if you’re used to or prefer working in more urban areas—the benefits of rural nursing are numerous.
Working in remote areas—often with smaller healthcare teams—requires rural nurses to be highly competent and well-prepared in all aspects of their professional practice. Fewer specialists and support staff translate into rural nurses treating patients with diverse and sometimes complicated conditions.
That said, rural travel nurses can function with more autonomy and independence, which is common in community hospitals where physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants might be on-call and physically away from the hospital for more hours of the day relative to large urban hospitals.
This requires rural travel nurses to possess a wide variety of skills, which, in turn, can help forge closer relationships within the small communities they serve. Greater routine use of these skills can also strengthen resumes and make rural nurses more attractive candidates for other travel assignments.
“Rural health can be both exciting and challenging. Working within a smaller hospital, you find your role is not only to be the RN, but you're also the CNA, the secretary, Rapid Response Team, and the IV Specialist,” said Haley Kuehl, an RN currently on a rural assignment with TRS Healthcare. “It allows for growth of skills, but also provides a more intimate setting for patient care due to, [the] majority of the time, ratios being at lower numbers."
Since travel nursing assignments and positions vary from one hospital to the next, nurses interested in rural travel jobs should work with their travel nurse recruiter and credentialing team to confirm their skills and comfort level are within the scope of requirements for any nursing job they consider.
Though rural nursing means living farther from the more diverse cultures and amenities typically found in urban areas, the cost of living is generally less expensive in rural areas, which can translate into more affordable housing options, as well as cheaper utilities and other everyday essentials.
For nurses whose goals are to take home more pay and find more budget-friendly living options while on a travel nursing assignment, a rural community may provide the perfect opportunity.
For example, a travel assignment in a high cost of living metro like New York City would provide access to desirable amenities and present positions with high pay; however, that pay would need to stretch a lot farther, given that NYC’s cost of living is 46% higher than the national average and housing costs are 134% higher than the national average.
By comparison, taking a travel assignment in a smaller, more rural community like Amsterdam, NY would allow nurses to keep more of their pay and spend less on essentials, as Amsterdam’s cost of living is 9% lower than the national average and housing costs are 44% lower than the national average.
In addition to lower costs in rural areas, nurses often find the slower pace and the different types of recreational activities commonly found in rural communities—such as fishing, hiking, and wildlife viewing—to be a bonus while on assignment, as it allows them to experience a more relaxing lifestyle.
Many rural healthcare facilities are now working to offer more competitive pay and benefits to rural traveling nurses to fill workforce gaps.
On top of more competitive pay, travel nurses may receive other financial incentives, such as sign-on bonuses, guaranteed pay raises, student loan reimbursement, health and dental insurance, retirement programs, and more.
Also, because many healthcare specialties are understaffed in rural areas, this can sometimes result in higher pay for travel nurses who have the necessary training and experience.
Another benefit of rural travel healthcare jobs is getting to work with a diverse population of patients from different socioeconomic backgrounds and age groups—the elderly in particular.
Additionally, many travel nurse jobs are available in Native American communities through the Indian Health Service (IHS), a federally funded organization that provides health services to American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Working as a travel nurse on Native American reservations helps bridge the gap between access to care and the healthcare needs of tribal nations and communities. Thanks to quality care provided by travel nurses and other healthcare professionals, over time, they can help reduce healthcare disparities and improve the overall health of the Native American population and other underserved communities.
Who doesn’t like to feel welcome when they arrive in a new place? Travel nurses are embraced at rural facilities, become part of the fabric of the healthcare team, acclimate to the local community, and provide welcomed support to fellow healthcare professionals who often work in understaffed environments in small hospitals.
Some rural hospitals even offer preceptor programs, with assigned mentors who provide guidance and support for new nurses during regularly scheduled check-ins.
Embedding with staff and getting to know people within the community also helps foster relationship-building and camaraderie, and the assistance provided by traveling nurses in rural hospitals and communities ultimately leads to better patient care outcomes overall.
TRS Healthcare is committed to providing quality healthcare in rural areas, and we welcome travel nurses who are looking to make a difference in these communities. In fact, we even received the 2023 Impact Award from the National Association of Travel Healthcare Organizations (NATHO) for the staffing support we’ve provided to community and critical access facilities in underserved areas.
If you’ve been thinking about taking a rural nursing assignment, TRS Healthcare can help you discover great opportunities you won’t find with other staffing companies. We work with you to find meaningful assignments at rural community and critical access facilities nationwide that meet your travel goals.
TRS Healthcare offers highly competitive compensation, sign-on and referral bonuses, and support from nurses and clinical experts. We make it our business to ensure that TRS Healthcare nurses are taken care of and have opportunities to enrich their skills and further their careers as part of the TRS Healthcare family.