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How Locum Tenens Has Changed Over the Past 20 Years


This Locum Tenens recruiter has gone from explaining to doctors what the concept is to explaining how it would work for them.

A few weeks ago, I hit a big milestone: My 20-year work anniversary. Though I'm not big on nostalgia, it's been fun to look back and see how things in my life have changed over the past two decades - my children are getting bigger, my hairstyles have gotten smaller, and I'm a little wiser than when I accepted that entry-level job.

I've also been thinking about how my industry has changed since the late '90s. When I started working as a physician recruiter, the majority of my time on the phone with doctors was spent explaining the concept of locum tenens. These days, nearly 90 percent of physicians say they are aware of temporary assignments. The conversations now are less about what locum tenens is and more about how it could make sense at different points in the physician's career.

Here are three more things that have changed in the locum tenens industry.

1. Locum tenens has become more popular among younger doctors. Twenty years ago, most physicians were working locum tenens assignments at the end of their career or after formal retirement. Today, the average age of locum tenens physicians is much lower. In fact, recent graduates now account for about 15 percent of the locum tenens workforce. These doctors are not necessarily using locum tenens to avoid getting a permanent job, but rather as a way to test the market before they settle down. They can get a look at how different practices operate, check out various areas of the country, and learn from more experienced physicians before signing a long-term contract with a practice, group or hospital.

2. Private practice owners are more mindful of work/life balance. Using locum tenens has always made sense when a practice was short-staffed between permanent hires or when a team member was on leave. Now we're seeing a new trend of practices using locum tenens as a way to offer more work/life balance to their physicians. Practices will bring in locum tenens to cover busy times of the year or fill in when permanent staff is on vacation, so their physicians don't have to shoulder the extra work. Recently, a physician told me that when he renegotiates his contract, he always asks for more vacation time rather than more money. His group hires locum tenens to cover for him while he's away and he comes back from vacation refreshed and recommitted to caring for his patients.

3. More physicians are working locum tenens full time. Burnout continues to plague the healthcare industry as physicians are taking on a heavier workload, dealing with increased regulations resulting from the Affordable Care Act, and fighting with their EHRs. That frustration has resulted in more physicians leaving private to work locum tenens on a full-time basis. Pulmonologist Thomas O'Mara once told me he gave up private practice for full-time locum tenens because he had tired of the business of medicine. "I don't have to be the guy that runs the show. I don't have to be the guy that bills the fortune," he said. "I just like doing the work."

Although quite a bit has evolved over time, there are still some things that haven't changed much. Because locum tenens are only at a location for a short time, other physicians sometimes view them as outsiders or lesser doctors. It can feel thankless at times.

From August 14-18, the National Association of Locum Tenens Organizations (NALTO) is hosting National Locum Tenens week to recognize each of the 40,000 physicians who work locum tenens each year, caring for patients and giving other physicians a break when they need it most. So if you work with a locum tenens physician, make sure to thank them next week - or any time throughout the year.


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