The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the Latin phrase “locum tenens” as “one filling an office for a time or temporarily taking the place of another-used especially of a doctor or clergyman.” “Locum tenens” literally translates to “place-holder.” Locum tenens physicians fill in for other doctors when someone is sick, on maternity leave, or the clinic or hospital is overwhelmed with patients and still recruiting for permanent staff.
Ticket to work/life balance
I discovered locum tenens after my medical internship when I needed time to write my first book but still had to earn a living. Since then, I’ve worked locums in academics, private practice, and both inpatient and outpatient settings.
Over the years, the temporary nature of these assignments allowed me to lead medical missions in the jungles of the Philippines, write hundreds of articles, author a handful of books and become a skilled scuba diver and underwater photographer. Had I stuck with a conventional job, I never would have had the time or energy to pursue these outside interests with such intensity and depth.
Locum tenens is growing. Twenty-five years ago, approximately 25,000 doctors worked locum tenens. Today, the total approaches 50,000. A recent survey indicated that 11.5% of physicians were contemplating locum tenens work in the next one to three years, up from 9.1% in 2014.1
Much like a substitute teacher, locum tenens physicians show up and do the best they can in a new, exciting environment. Adapting to a new clinic or hospital can be challenging. To succeed, a physician has to be a quick study and go with the flow. Flexibility is key.
According to a recent survey, burnout rates among physicians range from a low of 23% for plastic surgeons to a high of 48% for neurologists and critical care physicians.2 It is not clear why neurologists have attained the dubious honor of being tied for first place for burnout, but excessive clerical work, long hours, nights on call, and the pressure to see high numbers of complex patients probably contribute.3
One of the great benefits of locum tenens is the lack of administrative hassle. As a private practice neurologist, I worked both as a salaried employee and part-owner of a group of 13 neurologists. Both jobs came with endless frustrating and uncompensated administrative tasks.
1. The Physicians Foundation 2016 Physician Survey. The Physicians Foundation. September 21, 2016. https://physiciansfoundation.org/research-insights/physician-survey. Accessed February 6, 2019.
2. Peckham C. Medscape National Physician Burnout and Depression Report 2018. Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/slideshow/2018-lifestyle-burnout-depression-6009235#3.
3. Busis NA, Shanafelt TD, Keran CM, et al. Burnout, career satisfaction, and well-being among US neurologists in 2016. Neurology. 2017;88:1-12.