Physicians Consider Locum Tenens at End of Careers

September 14, 2016

If you're ready to phase out of full-time practice, but you want to keep making a difference in patients' lives, locums may be right for you.

The demographics of locum tenens are changing. What was once seen only as an option for older physicians is now becoming popular among younger doctors. Many recent graduates are now working temporary assignments right out of residency or fellowship as a way to test drive a facility or a part of the country before they decide to sign a contract. Midcareer doctors are also using locum tenens to make more money on the side or as a way to fill gaps between full-time jobs.

Despite younger physicians gravitating toward locum tenens, physicians ages 50 and older still make up more than half of the locum tenens workforce.

Here are a few reasons why:

1. Scheduling flexibility

CompHealth recently surveyed 1,000 physicians about the most appealing benefits of locum tenens work. At the top of the list was scheduling flexibility. We work with a lot of physicians at the end of their careers who want to finally have control over their schedules. They still want to practice medicine, but not full time. They find that locum tenens allows them to pick their own hours - whether that's working a few weeks each month, a few months out of the year, or nearly full-time - without the administrative burden of running a practice. After years of managing staff, working with insurance payers, and dealing with the headaches associated with running a private practice, the chance to solely focus on practicing medicine as a locum tenens can be incredibly refreshing.

I recently spoke with a pediatrician who was nearing retirement. Over his 20-plus years of private practice, he has treated three generations of patients. Not surprisingly, he was worried about cutting ties with many of those people. When he started working locum tenens in other locations, he kept seeing a small pool of patients at his own practice. He said slowly easing out of private practice made the transition much easier.

2. More time with family

Many physicians are drawn to private practice because it allows them and their families to put down roots in a community. But as those families grow up, they tend to spread out. Locum tenens is a way to check in on children or grandchildren in other parts of the country without having to move - and while still getting paid to practice medicine.

Physician Norman Baron decided to try locum tenens when his adult son fell ill. He needed to take more time off from medicine than his practice allowed and he needed to be closer to his son who had moved to a different city. Once his son was back to full strength, Baron found there were other benefits to locum tenens as well.

"A recent assignment allowed me to be closer to a new area of wine country, and I stayed on to relax and do a little bit of exploring on my own," he says. "I'm certainly not out hiking and river rafting, but I am seeing what the local culture is. Locum tenens assignments allow me to visit places of my choice and experience a little bit of adventure."

3. Easing into full retirement

Throughout his career, physician Michael Higginbotham has watched a number of physicians have what he calls "unsuccessful retirements" - where they leave medicine only to come right back. "Try retiring," he told me. "It's hard work." That's probably why his first attempt at retirement was unsuccessful. He's since turned to locum tenens as a way to more successfully ease into retirement.

"The part-time retirement phase is a more flexible phase where you want to work and, in between assignments, you really get to relax and enjoy the other aspects of your life," he says. "For me, the most important thing is to be useful until I can't be useful anymore."

When his recruiters call him with assignments that seem interesting to him - and that will accommodate him traveling with his wife and eight West Highland White Terriers - he says yes. Otherwise, he just enjoys his time off.

"Locums is ideal for people like myself who want to be part-time physicians, until we're ready to fully retire," Higginbotham says.

Mutually beneficial for facilities and physicians

Not only does locum tenens offer a way for physicians to transition into retirement or work past retirement age, it also benefits healthcare facilities. Hospitals and other care centers hire locums when they're staffing up for a busy season, when a full-time staff member goes on vacation or leave, or when they need to keep their permanent physicians from burning out. One hospital-based physician recruiter summed it up best when she said, ''Locum tenens are important to our facility because they keep the show running. Without them, we wouldn't be able to provide the care that we desire for our patients."

If you're ready to phase out of full-time practice, but you want to keep making a difference in patients' lives, locums may be right for you.