Is Travel Therapy a Good Option for New Grads During COVID-19?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve had dozens of new grad and soon-to-be new grad therapists reach out to us asking if now is a good time to start traveling as a new grad. This happens every year during May when the bulk of therapists graduate, but with all the uncertainty currently and full time therapy work being difficult to come by in some locations, there’s been much more interest in travel therapy than normal this year. Unfortunately, when there is uncertainty in healthcare, it is rarely a good thing for the travel therapy market, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no different.

While travel therapy has historically been a good career choice over the last decade for many therapists, including new grad therapists, things have really been shaken up recently. Let’s dive in to why travel therapy has been affected and whether or not it’s a good time for new grads to be trying travel therapy.

Travel Therapy During the Pandemic

As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a widespread impact on our world, including US healthcare jobs. “Uncertainty” is the buzz word as we all wait and see what will happen as the situation continues to evolve worldwide.

A big reason why uncertainty impacts the travel therapy job market to such a large degree has to do with the cost of hiring travel therapists incurred by facilities. Travel therapists can be significantly more expensive than full time and PRN staff, so in a situation where caseloads could suddenly decrease, many facilities don’t want to risk spending money on a traveler that they may end up not needing. Instead, they’ll make do with current staff while supplementing with PRN or offering overtime to full time therapists if needed, and wait out the uncertainty.

In the past two months we’ve seen hundreds of travel contracts ended early or cancelled before they even started due to fluctuations in caseloads in all settings. There has been a significant decrease in the number of new travel job openings due to facilities not hiring. With that being said, settings have certainly not all been affected evenly. Outpatient and school contracts have been the hardest hit by contract cancellations and job cuts, with home health, acute care, and SNF jobs impacted to a lesser degree. Even in the lesser impacted settings, COVID has still caused problems. This is primarily due to the fact that elective surgeries have been limited or cancelled altogether for almost two months now. Fewer elective surgeries means fewer patients across the board.

Flooding the Market

Less patients means less demand for therapists and subsequent layoffs across the board, not only in the form of travel therapy job cancellations but also for permanent full time staff. Some of the laid off permanent therapists are unable to find work in their area right now and are turning to travel therapy for some respite during tremulous times. This is bad news for current and prospective new grad travel therapists.

The combination of previously permanent therapists, new grads, and current travelers whose contracts have come to an end or were ended prematurely all looking for travel contracts at the same time, has caused the travel therapy market to get flooded with therapists searching for jobs. This flood of job seekers, combined with a reduction in overall jobs, has led to significant over-saturation of the travel therapy job market.

The impact is evident in the number of open travel contracts available and the declining pay rates offered on those contracts. The recruiters and companies that we work closely with are all reporting about 10 times less travel therapy jobs currently for PTs and OTs when compared to earlier this year before the pandemic. When comparing to the travel market at this time last year, the numbers look even more grim.

The travel jobs that are available are getting many more applicants submitted than normal and are closing very quickly. In some cases jobs will get to the maximum number of applicant submissions in a matter of a couple hours. With facilities getting so many submissions for their available travel contracts, a natural consequence is reductions in the bill rates offered, meaning lower pay for travel therapists. In nominal terms, this manifests as a reduction of about $100-$200/week on average for many of the open jobs.

What Does This Mean for New Grads?

Due to a minimal number of travel therapy jobs open at any given time currently, higher competition for those few jobs, along with lower pay, we can definitely say that now certainly isn’t the best time for new grads to begin travel therapy careers.

If at all possible, our recommendation right now would be for new grads to consider finding a full time or PRN position for a few months to a year to save some money and get some experience until things improve.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to consider travel jobs as an option and be on the lookout for travel job opportunities, but we encourage you to keep your options open and consider all job opportunities available to you, including perm and PRN locally.

Actions to Take for Those Dedicated to Pursuing Travel Therapy as a New Grad Currently

If you’re set on starting out as a new grad travel therapist despite the current environment, there are a few things you can do to have the best chance of finding a contract.

  1. Be willing to accept lower pay now than during normal times.
    • We’re always advocates of being informed and understanding how travel therapy pay works prior to jumping in, in order to avoid inadvertently taking low ball offers from non-reputable companies and recruiters. However, in this situation, you should expect for pay to be lower due to the declining bill rates mentioned above. Unfortunately, even though we normally recommend avoiding any pay rates less than $1,500/wk after taxes, there are some contracts paying travel PTs in the $1,300/week range right now that are still getting tons of submissions.
  2. Work with at least a few different good companies and recruiters.
    • This is more vital than ever right now. Having a few recruiters from different companies helping you search for jobs leads to more options and a better chance of finding a travel contract that will work for you. If you need help finding reputable companies and recruiters, fill out our recruiter request form, and we’ll match you with some that should work well for you.
  3. Be more flexible on travel assignment setting and location.
    • In the past, Whitney and I have been able to find consistent contracts close to each other in the states and settings that we prefer. Currently that just isn’t possible. To have a chance of finding a travel contract in the coming weeks (possibly months) as a new grad, it is important to be lenient on location and setting as much as possible. In the future when the travel therapy market picks up again, you can go back to being more selective with regards to setting and location. And even better, by that time you will have experience under your belt and will be more competitive when applying to the setting and location of your choice.

The Future of Travel Therapy

With states beginning to open back up and elective surgeries beginning to commence again across the country, the need for therapists will undoubtedly pick back up, and with that, we anticipate the travel therapy job market will improve. In addition to patients undergoing elective surgeries, patients that have become deconditioned due to COVID will require skilled therapy to a larger degree than before in SNFs, home health, outpatient, and inpatient rehab facilities. It’s hard to say exactly how long it will be before the travel therapy job market gets back to normal completely, but in the last couple of weeks we’ve seen things starting to trend upward, which is a good sign. Once demand picks back up and travel jobs are more prevalent, increases in travel pay back to normal levels should follow.

We are optimistic that demand will increase in the coming months and travel therapy will once again be a great option for new grads, like it was for us back when we started traveling as PTs after graduation in 2015!

If you have any questions or need help getting started, feel free to contact us. We’ve helped well over 1,000 new and current travel therapists to be better informed over the past few years! Best of luck & stay safe!

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

Jared has been a traveling physical therapist since 2015 and travels with his girlfriend and fellow travel PT, Whitney. Together they mentor other current and aspiring travel therapists.

Travel Therapy: Pros and Cons of Home Health

Written by Travis Kemper, PT, DPT

As travel therapists, there are a lot of opportunities to work in home health across the nation. And, the pay is usually pretty high which makes it an attractive option. It might be even more attractive for someone who is getting started as a new grad and looking at a large amount of debt to pay off. Recruiters often offer to submit new grad therapists to home health positions; but, as with everything, there are some positive and negatives to consider with home health therapy that should be taken into account before being submitted.

Here’s my take on working in home health after doing my first two travel physical therapy contracts in the setting. I will expand further on each bullet point below to give you a more comprehensive view of my thoughts, but here is an overview of the basics:

PROS:

  1. Even as a new grad, you have will the opportunity to dramatically improve the quality of care that patients are receiving in this setting.
  2. You can create closer relationships with patients than in most settings, and potentially make a larger impact on their personal lives than in other settings.
  3. You can make your own schedule, or at least have a significant amount of flexibility in your schedule.
  4. The pay is much higher than other areas of practice, although of course pay also depends on location.

CONS:

  1. On the flip side of #1 from the “pro” list, the con in this situation is that your colleagues may not be the best and your patients may not be receiving the best care across the board.
  2. There may be the potential for less growth as a clinician in this setting.
  3. Sometimes there are higher productivity requirements.
  4. There is more time spent in front of a computer than in other areas, and way more time being sedentary. The paperwork is much more intense than any other setting where I have worked.

 

Let’s take a closer look at the positive aspects of working in home health:

1. As a clinician, and even as a new grad, you can dramatically improve the quality of care that patients are receiving: This is in some ways a pro and a con.  The pro is obvious: you can literally be a rock-star clinician in home health on day one. I was told on numerous occasions, by numerous people, that I was the best home health provider that has ever come to see the patient. That’s awesome, and very rewarding for you as a clinician, but also incredibly sad. Check out the cons list below to see the flip side of this.

 

2. Potential for increased quality of relationships: I have patients/caregivers that still contact me from across the country to tell me how much they appreciate the work I did for them. There is a great potential to make a larger impact in your patients’ lives than in other settings. There is nothing in healthcare that can prepare you to see how a patient moves in his/her home environment. Sometimes you must get creative to make their homes work for them. I routinely helped patients redesign their living rooms to make them safer, and I also removed two bathroom doors because the patients’ assistive device would not fit through the door and the patients could not safely access the commode without a device.

 

3. More flexibility in your schedule: Because you can design how your day looks with visiting each patient, it allows things like making stops to the post office or other businesses that have daytime only hours much easier to manage. It also makes it easier to design a schedule that works for you as an individual, within reason.

 

4. Higher pay than other settings: This depends on the location, but home health is almost always one of the highest paying settings. This is a huge pro for choosing to work in this setting. More money, more options in life.

 

Let’s take a closer look at the negative aspects of working in home health:

1. Other clinicians in this setting may be sub-par: As I mentioned above, sometimes you can really stand out in home health as an amazing clinician, because unfortunately sometimes the patients are receiving sub-optimal care from other clinicians. Sometimes, depending on the team you are working with, you may have to perform tasks or communication for the patient that is more appropriate for another discipline, such as nursing, social work, or another therapist, or else the patient will not get the care they deserve. For example, at one point I worked with an OT who would perform an evaluation, make goals, and on the next visit perform a discharge stating all goals were met, when the patient had not received or been trained on half of the recommended equipment. This happened with several patients. Unfortunately, when providers are paid for quantity, as is the case with most home health companies (presumably because that is how insurance pays the company), quality of care will decrease from most providers. This caused me a lot of stress because I care about my patients, and I get incredibly frustrated when I see sub-par care.

Here’s a quote that I feel is appropriate to my experience in this situation: “People that aren’t used to quality always chase quantity.”- unknown

 

2. Potential for less growth as a clinician: When it comes to growth as a clinician, I believe you grow by seeing and interacting with other therapists as well as performing personal research, going to conferences, and earning CEUs. In home health, although you often work with a team, you are by yourself almost all the time. I truly feel that as a physical therapist, I did not grow nearly as much in this setting as in other settings where I have worked.

 

3. High productivity standards are standard: This has obvious downsides. I have only taken hourly positions in home health, but the company will still try to enforce productivity standards on you. This is the toughest thing, especially with the cons listed about your potential coworkers and why you can be a “rock-star” as a new grad, which requires extra work from you if you want you to provide the best care. This combined with last con on the list (see below) are the reasons that, unfortunately, I probably won’t be doing home health anymore.

 

4. Lastly, the paperwork is brutal! People have tried to tell me that it is no worse than other settings, but I have worked in just about every setting between clinicals and paid positions, and it is by far the worst in my opinion. Every day I would spend half my day documenting, and that was with doing as much as possible in the home with the patient.  Combine documentation time with drive time, and you have landed a sedentary profession. I chose a career with physical in the title. I don’t want to sit, and I hate computers!

Conclusion

Overall, I think home health can be a great place for the right person. If you’re very organized and don’t mind increased paperwork, you can make a huge impact in this setting right away and really feel you’ve provided a lot of value to your patients. But, there are definitely some cons to consider, and you want to make sure to ask all the right questions before going into a contract in home health.

I hope this helps you! Please feel free to reach out with any questions about home health here. I will happily look at your contract, set up a phone call to chat about home health, or provide any other assistance I can.

Stay tuned for a future post about specific questions I recommend asking during a home health interview!