An Overlooked Opportunity for Private Practice Physicians

January 24, 2015

Based on my own experiences as a locum tenens physician, I believe that it is one of the best opportunities available to private practice physicians.

The ability to focus is one the greatest strengths of most physicians.  However, like most strengths, it can also be a weakness.  By hyper-focusing, physicians tend to develop tunnel vision and block out some of the less popular career options after residency and fellowship training.  Based on my own experience, I believe that one of the best opportunities available to private practice physicians is locum tenens. 

I worked as a locum tenens physician for about two years.  Through my experience I gained some interesting perspective into locum tenens, healthcare, as well as medical education and training.  This new perspective has cleared up some of my own tunnel vision and truly helped shape my practice for the better.

Here's more on my own experience as a locum tenens physician.

How locum tenens works
Locum tenens physicians typically work in underserved areas where there is a great need for their specialty.  Positions are often in hospitals or private practices, where locum tenens doctors cover for staff on days off, vacation, or medical leave.  These temporary assignments can range from one day to several months, or longer depending on the need and availability of the physician.  However, physicians usually have flexibility to choose the location and time commitment of the assignment. 

Why I recommend locum tenens
One of the biggest benefits of locum tenens, especially for the private practice physician, is a newfound perspective.  

As a locum tenens physician, I worked in a variety of healthcare settings and was able to observe how different hospital systems and private practices operate.  I worked in two locations: Bangor, Maine and Zanesville, Ohio. While these two locations are geographically very different, the issues affecting the healthcare systems were extraordinarily similar.

Observing and working in these different healthcare systems provided me some insight into how to best operate my own practice.  I implemented what worked well while avoiding the inefficiencies and pitfalls I observed.  This gave me a competitive advantage.

In addition, I was able to experience paid travel and the satisfaction that comes from helping an underserved community.

Who should consider locum tenens
I believe that locum tenens is a great option for physicians who are not ready to make a full-time commitment or sign a long-term contract.  Locum tenens can help these physicians identify where they might look to practice in the future, and can provide important lessons regarding how they can practice more successfully (as my locum tenens experience did for me).
Physicians looking to supplement their salary during vacation days or practitioners who are nearing retirement and no longer desire a full-time position may also want to consider this option.

Who should not consider locum tenens
In general, locum tenens physicians work as independent contractors and are considered self-employed. Those who are averse to working in this manner may not be a good fit.  While significant tax benefits exist for independent contractors, filing taxes in this manner tends to complicate the yearly tax filing.  Those that prefer a straightforward tax filing may prefer an employed position.  As an independent private practice physician, I was already dealing with many of these tax “headaches” and did not view any of the tax implications as problematic.

Also, locum tenens may not be ideal for physicians with responsibilities to family that might interfere with travel.  Although some assignments allow for family travel, school and extracurricular obligations may preclude physicians from bringing their family along.  My wife and I have three children under the age of 5.  My early locum tenens assignments made things difficult for her at home while I was away.  On several occasions, my wife had to take care of a sick child on her own without my presence.  However, support from both of our families helped during these moments.

In summary
The career path in medicine is one that tends to be dogmatic and linear.  Physicians, hyper-focused on their career, often do not deviate from the well-worn path.  Those who do are looked at skeptically. 

Physicians should take some time to explore all of their options, especially locum tenens.  Locum tenens allows physicians to gain insight and perspective into medical systems and healthcare.  This not only improves one’s understanding of healthcare but can improve a physician’s overall approach to operating his practice.  Although locum tenens does have some downsides, the advantages greatly outweigh the disadvantages.  For the open-minded physician who is looking for a great opportunity, consider locum tenens.