Strategic support: How healthcare organizations can incorporate locum tenens into workforce planning

Workforce challenges are a top concern for today's healthcare leaders, especially as supply and demand projections suggest a shortage of 37,000 to 124,000 physicians by 2034.

In response to this challenge, many hospitals and health systems are seizing the opportunity to think differently about staffing. This new mindset often includes locum tenens providers. 

Becker's Hospital Review recently spoke with Maggie Youmans, senior vice president of sales at Jackson + Coker, about how locum tenens supports the strategic needs of healthcare organizations — from supporting full-time staff to improving patient experiences while delivering a positive return on investment. 

The use of locum tenens is growing

Locum tenens is the practice of physicians, nurse practitioners, or physician assistants working on a temporary basis as independent contractors on either a short or long-term assignment. Over the last decade, there has been a significant transformation in how healthcare organizations proactively plan and incorporate locum tenens as a part of their total workforce solution. 

A recent survey found that 88 percent of hospitals, medical groups, and other healthcare facilities addressed staffing shortages by using locums at some point in the prior 12 months. 

"Healthcare organizations view these providers as part of their team and their locum tenens agencies as true partners," Youmans said. "By planning and budgeting for locums, they can support physician mental wellness, plan for gaps in coverage, offer more specialized care to patients, expand care in rural communities, and address healthcare inequities."

Unfilled provider vacancies are costly for healthcare organizations

When a physician or advanced practitioner’s position goes unfilled, it creates coverage gaps, disrupts continuity of care, and can contribute to revenue loss. 

"It can take significant time to recruit physicians and advanced practitioners. Based on market data and specialty, filling a vacancy can take between 150 and 230 days," Youmans said. "Healthcare organizations who have incorporated locums as part of their strategic staffing plan are able to meet patient needs better, reduce any opportunity cost from a vacancy, and increase revenue.” 

There are several reasons why healthcare organizations use locums. 

“The scope of locum tenens coverage varies from increased seasonal patient volume, such as flu season, to filling in for permanent providers who are on leave or vacation, helping to start a new service line, as well as filling staffing gaps while a healthcare organization is recruiting for a permanent provider,” Youmans shared.

Additionally, Telehealth is a growing area for organizations as they strive to expand healthcare access in communities. Many are turning to locum tenens providers to deliver care via virtual platforms to fill this need. 

Locum tenens empowers providers and healthcare organizations to focus on patient care 

The healthcare industry has seen a shift in recent years as physicians and advanced practitioners want increased flexibility and autonomy in how they practice medicine. One benefit of incorporating locum tenens assignments is that they give providers full control over how, where, and when they work.

"Providers can choose assignments based on location, the type of practice, patient load, and more,” Youmans said. "They have opportunities to travel the country, expand their experience and skillset while seeing many different patient populations in rural, urban, and suburban communities. This includes practice settings, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, Federally Qualified Health Centers, Indian Health Service, correctional facilities, or within university systems."  

Setting up a successful locum tenens program requires planning and partnerships

The first step to establishing a locum tenens program is planning and budgeting for these resources as part of an organizational workforce strategy. The planning process must incorporate the right locum tenens agency as a partner. The National Association of Locum Tenens Organizations (NALTO) is a good place to start the search. All NALTO members adhere to a written code of ethics and are held to high standards. 

"Find an agency that truly serves as your staffing consultant. They should have a proven track record and your organization’s best interests in mind,” Youmans said. “At Jackson + Coker, our mission is to connect providers and communities to transform lives. Even if there isn’t a vacancy today, healthcare organizations will likely experience a need at some point," Youmans said. "Proactive budgeting for future staffing opportunities will ensure your organization is prepared to meet evolving patient needs."

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