The rise of the locum tenens physician

Over the past few years, the demand for locum tenens physicians has risen drastically.

Locum tenens are being increasingly used in hospitals, ambulatory care centers, urgent care clinics, primary care clinics, and long-term acute care centers, and the trend shows no signs of reversing.

A few key factors have contributed to the spike in locum tenens work. First, national demographics are producing an increased patient volume, and locum tenens physicians are playing a large role in serving these new patients. With the number of uninsured dropping due to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and with baby boomers aging, healthcare facilities are experiencing high patient volumes, resulting in staffing challenges.

Due to patient highs, demand for medical professionals—both permanent and locum, but especially locum—has grown. For many years, healthcare facilities were reluctant to rely heavily on locum tenens physicians to address staffing needs, but this hesitation has decreased over time, and now more than ever before, locums are viewed as part of the staff.

The perception of locum work has also changed amongst physicians. While in the past, becoming a locum physician was a less desired career path, today's healthcare market is providing locum physicians with new opportunities and benefits, creating an attractive option for doctors to consider. Many doctors view locum work as a great lifestyle—not as a second-rate option to more permanent work. They cite the high demand for their skills, high salaries, and abundant flexibility as top reasons for loving the work they do. Because of the large patient volume currently being seen, locum tenens physicians can feel secure in their ability to find a job at any time and have more control over their contract. The high demand also means doctors can afford to be selective about where they want to take their skills and can work when they want.

Salaries for locum tenens physicians have increased in recent years, and doctors often have room to negotiate with healthcare facilities. The abilities to travel and to try different kinds of medical work are also top reasons locum tenens decide to take these positions. Doctors who are just finishing their residencies and are unsure of where they want to live or what kind of work they want to do often turn to locum tenens work to help them gain clarity on these questions.

For hospitals looking to attract high-quality locum tenens doctors, there are several trends to be aware of. Doctors feel like they have more options, and information about the standard hourly rates for different types of medical assignments is more widely available, so it is essential for hospitals to keep their salaries for locums competitive in order to attract the best talent out there. In addition, rural hospitals that have had trouble attracting permanent doctors because of their location, have come to see the employment of locums as an essential tool for keeping their facilities well-staffed.

The good news for hospital is that some locum tenens doctors report that they would be interested in making the transition to a permanent role at a healthcare facility if a good opportunity presented itself. If a hospital is hiring locums because of a need for another permanent doctor that they are having trouble filling, they should make sure to communicate the benefits of permanent employment to their locums. For example, a major difference between locum tenens and permanent work is that doctors in full-time positions are eligible for benefits through the facility. Additionally, because many locum doctors choose to do locum work until they find the type of environment that they want to practice in, there is an opportunity to retain a locum doctor if they find they love the experience of working at a particular hospital.

Doctors and hospitals can both benefit from the rising demand for locum tenens work, which will continue to increase as the number of insured and aging patients grows. For locum tenens doctors, this trend will translate to higher salaries and a greater ability to choose the assignments they want. However, hospitals can benefit too—if they recognize these patterns and plan strategically in their hiring, they can ensure that they continue to be well-staffed with high-quality physicians in this new healthcare landscape.

Julie Ramos is Managing Director – Locum Tenens at The Execu|Search Group. She is responsible for the staffing of locum tenens physicians as well as nurse practitioners and physician assistants to medical facilities across the U.S. Follow The Execu|Search Group on Twitter @ExecuSearch.

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