Why Locum Tenens Is Not for Everyone

November 9, 2016

Locum tenens is not for all physicians. But many of their stated objections to trying temporary assignments may not really be barriers at all.

Much to my chagrin, not every physician wants to try working locum tenens. CompHealth recently surveyed more than 1,000 physicians to understand how they feel about taking temporary assignments. Though we found that there are lots of benefits, there are just as many reasons why doctors say no to these jobs.

I'm the first to admit that locum tenens is not for everyone. But if you look a little closer, you may see that many of the barriers to trying temporary assignments may not be barriers at all.

1. I already have a full-time position (53 percent)

The most common reason doctors pass up locum tenens jobs is that they already have a job. What they may not realize is only about a third of locum tenens physicians make locums their full-time careers. The majority are picking up shifts in addition to their full-time jobs to make extra money. Assignments can be as short as a day or two or stretch up to months at a time.

2. I prefer the stability of a full-time job (42 percent)

Recently, a pulmonologist told me he was scared to work locums because it just didn't offer the same job security as his full-time employment did. Then he had a realization. Though he had a three-year contract with his current employer, it had a 60-day termination clause - with or without cause! That meant he had just as much job security in the 60-day locum tenens assignment he'd been offered as he did in his "stable" permanent job. He started working locums, fell in love with the flexibility, and never turned back.

3. I have a family to take care of (27 percent)

I asked a neurologist to tell me the worst part of working locums. "It's all the time I spend away from my family," she said. But before I could respond, she added, "Interestingly enough, even though I travel more with locum tenens, it seems as though I am gone less. When I'm gone, I'm gone, but when I'm home, I'm very home. And I'm very mentally and emotionally present with my children. I wasn't that way before." Other doctors deal with homesickness in a different way - they take their spouse or children with them on assignments!

4. Constantly moving to different hospitals is undesirable (22 percent)

Sure, learning a new EHR system can be a pain, and it's not easy to learn new names and phone numbers. But many locum tenens physicians find working in a new location refreshing. One physician told me, "I didn't realize I was in a rut [in my full-time job] until I took a locums job." Locum tenens physicians see different ways of managing a practice and handling cases. They get a break from the politics of their full-time job and get to spend more time simply practicing medicine. It's also worth noting that most locums are not working at a new facility for each assignment. Generally, these physicians find a few facilities they like and rotate between them on a regular basis.

5. Constantly traveling and living out of a hotel is undesirable (18 percent)

I've yet to meet a locum tenens physician who loves airports, but I speak with plenty who love to travel. Because assignments are available across the country, physicians in most specialties can pick their preferred location - whether it's on the coast in the summer, down south in the winter, or up north during ski season. Of course locums are at a hospital because they need to work, but that doesn't mean they can't enjoy their surroundings when they're off the clock.

6. I need a consistent income -locum tenens make less money than permanent physicians (16 percent)

It's tough to make a budget if you don't know how much you will earn. Luckily, there is no shortage of open locum positions. As the physician shortage increases, so does the number of locum assignments. And locum tenens jobs actually pay a higher hourly rate than permanent positions. Plus, the staffing agency covers housing, travel, and malpractice insurance.

7. Locum tenens can't build relationships with their patients (12 percent)

An OB/GYN told me she was really worried that locums wouldn't allow her to create the same bond with patients she had in her permanent job. Luckily, she found that wasn't the case. When she's on assignments, she focuses on the moment. "I'm going to do whatever I can for my patients right now because I'm 100 percent there. [Locums] has in no way impaired being able to bond with and take care of patients the way that they need."

If you've never thought locum tenens made sense for your career, it may be time to take another look.