Is Locum Tenens the Solution to Physician Burnout?

August 12, 2015

If you find yourself reaching the breaking point, stop and consider locum tenens work. It may offer the flexibility and stress relief you are looking for.

Gallup just released its annual report on workplace engagement. The good news is that U.S. employees reported the highest level of workplace engagement in the past 14 years. The bad news? That number is still incredibly low; less than one-third of workers are engaged in their work.

Physicians often have the opposite problem. Many doctors become so engaged in their jobs that work life can quickly overshadow just about everything else, resulting in physicians who feel burned out by their careers. In fact, a 2014 Medscape study revealed that 46 percent of doctors have experienced burnout - and that number is even higher for physicians working in emergency medicine or critical care.

Just about every day, I hear about physicians who have felt so burned out that they've considered leaving medicine entirely. Luckily, I also get to speak with doctors who have used locum tenens as a remedy.

Finding boundaries

Ever since she was a little girl, physician Monica Anselmetti wanted to help people, so a career as an OB/GYN was the perfect fit. But she quickly found that the job was consuming the rest of her life. "I wanted to be there for my patients, but there were no boundaries. I was not only seeing patients in the clinic, I was on call and doing deliveries in the middle of the night, following up on surgical cases and getting calls on my cell phone," she says. "That's doable for a year or so but it wears you down after three, four, five years."

She was so worn out that she started questioning whether it was time to step away from medicine. She decided to give locum tenens a try and found that it gave her the balance she was looking for.

"The beauty of locum tenens is that I work really hard at an assignment for a couple weeks or a month. I may be tired at the end of it, but I know that I'm going to have a break," Anselmetti says. "I can take the time I need to recover and go back to the next assignment recharged and happy to be with patients."

Learning new tricks

Neurologist Madeleine Geraghty had a similar experience. Years of working on tough stroke cases began to take a toll both physically and emotionally. "That kind of lifestyle with the stroke work can be incredibly intense and if you overwork, you can burnout," Geraghty says. "I needed a break and I needed to take a step back and spend some more time with my family."

She looked to her physician peers for a solution. "I interacted with a lot of different locums physicians who came to my hospital," she explains. "Many of them told me how they had burned out previously and how comfortable they feel with the locums lifestyles giving them the freedom to move about and to choose their own time schedules. They talked about how much time they were able to spend with their families and how much more relaxed they felt. Hearing that message over and over from multiple different locum physicians really made me consider locums as an opportunity."

Geraghty found that locum tenens work helped bring her life back in balance - but that wasn't the only benefit of taking assignments at different facilities.

"When you stay at one place for a long time you get used to doing things the same way over and over again until it just becomes habit," she says. "One of the nicest benefits of locums for me was just the reminder that there were other ways of doing things and that people had different practices. That kind of shook me out of my rut."

Gaining more family time

Physician Thomas O'Mara ran a successful pulmonology practice for years. But when the relationship with his partner went south, he decided it was time for a change. "When I got out of the private practice it gave me time to realize how much my life had been consumed by the practice and how it was consuming the life of my wife, the life of my children, and it wasn't allowing me to live," he says.

As he considered the next phase of his career, O'Mara realized he didn't want to worry about management, employees, or government regulations. He just wanted to do the work. "Locums gave me the opportunity to do that," he says. "I just started doing more and more assignments, and I haven't looked back. I haven't wanted to do anything else."

Though assignments sometimes take him away from his family, he says he's now much more present when he's at home. "My wife would say when I'm home now, I'm home, and I'm not distanced. My focus isn't always somewhere else. When we take a vacation, I go on vacation. I don't have to worry about the practice back home."

For some assignments, O'Mara takes the whole family along. "I like to take my children because we can live in a different part of the world and they can learn the culture. That's learning that you just can't get out of a book," he says.

Locum tenens may not work for everyone, but if you're one of the 46 percent of doctors feeling burned out by your career, maybe you should give it a try.