Locum Tenens: What It Is & 5 Reasons Why I Do It

Latin for “place holder” or “to hold the place of” I am, what is referred to as a Locum Tenens, or Locum for short. Basically, I’m a traveling “substitute” doctor for clinics, hospitals, urgent cares, etc. that may need a Pediatrician. It may be to cover 1 day, or 1 month, or even 1 year. It may be to cover maternity leaves, short-staffed hospitals, or vacations. I contract with large agencies that act as a third-party to help their ‘clients’ in need of a ‘provider.’ An internationally available job position, Locum Tenens have been around in the US since the 1970s and were started as a way to find providers to work in medically underserved areas such as very rural populations or Native American reservations (Indian Health Service). Since then the industry has expanded to include dozens of agencies with jobs in every state, in the private and public sectors of medicine and for all medical specialties. Physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants may fill these roles part-time, in addition to their full-time jobs or, as I’m doing myself, full-time.

So, instead of taking a traditional job route and signing a contract or going directly onto fellowship training (still my future goal), WHY did I go this route?

1. Freedom. I make my own schedule. I can decide when I want to work, where I want to work, for how long I want to work and IF i want to work at all. I’m not stuck in a non-compete clause or a 3 year contract I can’t break with a facility I can’t stand. After 7 years away from close family and friends and literally not seeing my family in person in 12 months, it’s nice to be able to schedule myself around them for once. This also allows me to reapply to fellowship in the coming years unhindered by strict schedules during interviews or immobile situations. As an example to my schedule, I have had days where I work 24 hours on call from 7am-7am in one city, drive straight to clinic for a shift from 8am-5pm the next day in another city, and then back up to be on call for the following morning at 7am-7am – I’m like a ping pong ball.

2. Experience. I have always had great respect for the physicians that have come before me, but one thing you might not know if you’re not in health care, is that the way they trained was much different than it is now. There was not as much supervision, not as much red tape and you learned by going through a fire in dire situations and hoping you made it out on the other side. Now, for good reason this has changed, and will continue to change, and there are now miles and miles of legal concerns and administrations breathing over our shoulders, but it leads to a different experience and acquisition of experience. I loved training at a large medical center, but doing Locum work casts me far out into situations in which I do not have all of the resources I’m used to. It is forcing me to adapt and to grow. It is teaching me how things work differently in different clinics and hospitals, WITHOUT getting involved in the politics of the matter. If you had told me 3 years ago I would be setting up respiratory equipment (an oxygen blender box thing) for a delivery with no respiratory therapist, I would have scoffed at you. Out here, I’m It, and anything that survives a fire comes out much better molded in my opinion.

3. Compensation. I mean, let’s just be Honest now. In general a Locum Tenens provider is being sent to places nobody wants to go or to do things nobody wants to do. Not everyone wants to be in the middle of nowhere without resources in scary situations. On average a Locum Tenens provider can make up to 1.5x another provider in the same specialty. So for me, another large reason for this path was to attempt paying down some of these $500,000 in loans a little, tiny bit, faster. Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to be a while before I upgrade my 2009 Hyundai Sonata to a 2020 Hyundai Sonata, but hopefully this will help. Not to mention, they pay for my room & board and travel, and there’s nothing like watching these Hilton points accumulate for free!

4. Adventure. The whole reason for this blog! I have had the privilege of living in some of the most wonderful and unique places in the country. I can’t think of a better way or excuse to find myself exploring places I would never have gone to otherwise. From snowy areas in Minnesota, or South Canada as I call it, to the deserts of the Southwest to the coastal areas of New England, the world is at my fingertips.

5. Connections. You never know where things will take you. More for another post, but there’s no way 10 years ago when I was in college at UC San Diego you could have convinced me that in 2020 I would be in Huntsville, TX working with a California-born OBGYN that went to Medical School where I went to College and trained in his Residency near my childhood home. And in 10 years from now, who knows if past me will ever have understood where future me ends up. Plus, who knows, maybe I’ll meet the Love of my Life in some small town in the middle of nowhere.

Disadvantages. Now, since I’m writing this also for future Locum Tenens workers, it would be worthwhile to briefly say, there are certainly cons to this lifestyle. I am constantly on the move. Relationships (professional or social) run the risk of being temporary or scattered. Most importantly, while all agencies within the National Association of Locum Tenens Organizations (NALTO) will pay for my malpractice insurance, I am a purely independent contractor (1099 form) responsible for accounting for my own taxes and benefits – there’s no loan forgiveness of course.

So, at the end of the day, Locum Tenens isn’t for everyone, but for me, at least for now, the allure is still there.

Indian Health Service
Staff Care
National Association of Locum Tenens Organizations
Medical License Pro

This post not sponsored by any specific Locum Tenens agency.

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