Everyone gets burned out. Even doctors.
In fact, half of practicing physicians reported feeling burned out, according to a 2015 report in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
This is the exact reason Dr. Louise Henson, a family practice physician in Texas, has been working as a locum tenens (temporary doctor) for the past 10 years.
“For years, I worked with the underserved in a typical medical setting, putting in long hours and taking my turn on call,” Henson told Healthline. “As a locum, I can pretty much set my schedule and work 40-hour weeks. I do my job when I’m on the job without having to worry about if I’m going to be able to take off time for my family or other personal commitments.”
Doctors like Henson are in demand.
A recent survey from the locum tenens staffing agency Staff Care reports that the use of temporary physicians is growing, with primary care physicians cited as the most in-demand locum specialty.
In addition, 94 percent of healthcare facility managers surveyed indicated they had used locum tenens doctors sometime over the past 12 months, a 74 percent increase since 2012.
The top reasons facilities hired temporary doctors were to:
- fill in until a permanent doctor is found
- fill in for staff who have left
- fill in for doctors on vacation or receiving continuing education
- meet rising patient demand
“The practice of medicine requires working more than 40 hours a week, being on call, and working on weekends,” Dr. Janis M. Orlowski, chief healthcare officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), told Healthline. “We see the younger generation of physicians in the beginning of their career looking for a lifestyle change, as well as those at the end of their career who want to work some to stay in the field.”
Physician shortage in play
A shortage of physicians may largely be driving the need for locums.
The AAMC released a report in 2015 that projected a physician shortage ranging between 46,000 and 90,000 over the next decade.
“The shortage is growing, and needs to be addressed,” said Orlowski. “We are asking for support in increasing the number of residency slots we have because of the shortage.”
Aging patients with increasing healthcare demands and aging physicians who soon will retire are some of the reasons for the shortage.
A difficult time filling physician needs in smaller regions of the country also contributes to the shortage, said Dr. Peter Angood, chief executive officer of the American Association for Physician Leadership.
“The public should be aware that there are distribution issues within the physician workforce, and there’s data that the shortage is gradually building,” Angood told Healthline. “Therefore the combination of the two will make it such that whatever community you live in you should not be surprised to come across a locum tenens or transient physician for your care.”
Should patients be concerned?
Locum tenens are required to have the same licensure and training as other physicians.
“These are highly qualified individuals. However, the institutions who hire them need to do the due diligence to make sure they are qualified,” says Orlowski.
She points out that safety procedures can vary between healthcare facilities.
“It’s how quickly the doctors can adapt to that and work. Medicine is a team sport so you’re working with nurses and pharmacists, and if the physician is new, care needs to be taken so that communication is clear and that the team works smoothly together under a new physician,” Orlowski says.
Angood agrees, noting that doctors who are used to working together get to know and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
“When you have a more transient workforce coming through there’s a basic level of knowledge of skill, but the institution and doctors that are in the community have to be mindful that the person who’s coming through on a temporary basis may not have the same skill set as what they’re used to,” he says.
However, this is not unique only to locums, adds Angood. So is the case with medical personnel who work in emergency medicine.
“Any time there’s a shift change this happens. The locum tenens is just a different form of a handoff for a period of time,” says Angood.
As far as what settings are most suited for locums, Angood points to procedural-based settings that don’t require any type of follow-up since patients who need to follow up with a doctor after a procedure might prefer the same doctor.
The same goes for those who see a doctor for a chronic condition.
“Those practices will do better with a stable physician workforce because the patients rely on connecting with the same group of doctors,” says Angood.
Henson admits that there’s some truth to that notion in her work setting.
“I may not see you as often as I would if I were in a typical clinical setting. That personal and deep relationship is not going to happen,” she says.
However, patients’ medical needs will be taken care of, she adds.
“Even if you don’t see me every time, the doctors communicate with each other, and your medical care is priority,” Henson says, noting that having a physician who isn’t burned out has benefits.
“I think it makes us better physicians when we’re not stressed out, and we’re there because we want to be,” she said.