Everything You Need to Know About Working as a Locum Tenens Physician
A growing shortage of physicians has left hospitals and private practices in search of reliable medical professionals.
Through 2034, experts project a shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians.
The shortage isn’t limited to physicians, either. Nurses and nurse practitioners are also in short supply. According to the NIH, there will be a need for 275,000 nurses through the year 2030.
Due to the rising rate of burnout among medical professionals following the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be an uphill battle to fill these open positions. So hospitals and practices around the country have found a solution, albeit a temporary one:
The locum tenens physician.
As the demand for medical professionals rises while the number of qualified nurses and physicians continues to fall, many healthcare employers have no choice but to hire locum tenens physicians to fill in the gaps.
Here’s everything you need to know about working as a locum tenens physician, including where to find positions and what to look for in a locums contract.
What is a Locum Tenens Physician?
“Locum tenens” is Latin for “to substitute for.”
In the healthcare industry, the term refers to temporary doctors, nurses, and physician assistants who work in a similar capacity as freelancers would in other industries.
These medical professionals substitute for doctors and other medical personnel at hospitals or private practices that have immediate openings — and an urgent need to fill them.
How long a locum tenens physician stays at a hospital or practice depends on the contract. The duration of a contract term can vary from a single-day shift to a year-long position.
Locum tenens work dates back to the 1970s. That’s when the federal government offered a grant to the University of Utah to hire temporary physicians for rural areas in need of better access to care. The program gained so much traction that hospitals and private practices across the U.S. started (and still continue) to hire locum tenens physicians when needed.
Working locum tenens allows physicians to experience different facilities in various locations without making a full-time commitment. It also allows patients to receive the care they need, particularly in underserved areas.
The Benefits of Working as a Locum Tenens Physician
In 2022, about 88% of healthcare facilities used locum tenens physicians. The demand for temporary doctors is growing because of the shortage of medical professionals.
However, the desire to become a locum tenens physician is growing, too, for good reason.
Here’s a look at some of the key benefits of working in a temporary medical position:
Earn Supplemental Income
If you’re looking to take on extra shifts but your hospital or practice doesn’t have any to offer, moonlighting as a locum tenens physician can help you earn additional income.
You can choose to take as many extra shifts as you can handle. Healthcare organizations hire locum physicians when they have a great need for skilled medical experience, and they’re willing to pay more for it.
While per diem rates vary by region and specialty, the average locum tenens physician earns $32.45 more per hour than those who work in permanent full-time physician jobs.
Work When You’re In-Between Jobs
When you’re between positions, a locum tenens opportunity can help bridge the gap. Whether you are moving, have been laid off, or have recently completed a contract, working as a part-time doctor can provide income when you most need it.
Experience Different Practice Settings
As a resident preparing to become an attending physician, you might be considering the type of medical facility where you want to work.
Working as a locum tenens doctor is a way to gain experience in different practice settings, including hospitals, private practices, and urgent care centers.
It is a much different experience to work at a massive, fast-paced hospital than to work at a small private practice. Whether you work in pediatrics, anesthesiology, gynecology, or family medicine, among others, the locum tenens experience allows you to learn more about what it’s like to work in different practice settings.
Locum tenens work is also an opportunity to try different roles and take on different assignments. It’s a fantastic way to broaden your perspective of the medical landscape, build your resume, strengthen your skills, and determine where you want to work full-time.
Enjoy a More Flexible Schedule
Locum tenens positions are much more flexible than traditional full-time medical roles. You’re only committed to work the length of time that your contract designates.
Likewise, you can be more particular about when and which positions you choose to take on. Doctors don’t get many days off, but working locum tenens provides more control over one’s schedule.
Temporary positions are an attractive option for medical professionals working through personal life transitions, as well. Whether you’re mourning the loss of a loved one, celebrating the birth of a new child, or going through a divorce, working locum tenens offers you the ability to lighten your workload as needed while maintaining a source of income.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused physician burnout rates to soar. A staggering 62.8% of physicians reported that they had experienced burnout in 2021.
Locum tenens positions offer flexible contracts and shift lengths. This flexibility can help doctors and nurses avoid the burnout that so many full-time professionals feel.
The Opportunity to Travel
Many people will spend their entire life living and working in the same city or region of the country.
For doctors who want to discover what it’s like to live and work somewhere else, locum tenens contracts make it possible.
Of course, working as a locum tenens physician does not necessarily require you to travel. Depending on where you now live, there may be several available opportunities to work locum tenens while staying local.
Focus on Patient Care
Locums positions allow you to concentrate on what you love most about practicing medicine:
Providing top-quality patient care.
When you work in a locum tenens position, you will not be expected to handle administrative tasks or navigate the bureaucracy of a large hospital system.
That means you have more time to focus your attention on the patients who need your experience and expertise.
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The Downsides of Working as a Locum Tenens Physician
Although the temporary and part-time nature of locum tenens work has many benefits, there are a few downsides.
No Benefits Package
Locums physicians are independent contractors.
As a result, you won’t receive any of the employment benefits (such as health insurance or paid time off) that your employer would otherwise provide if you were working a full-time position.
You’ll also be fully responsible for establishing your own retirement savings plan and paying for your own insurance. That includes malpractice insurance, disability insurance, and life insurance, which are protections that many traditional employers’ benefits packages offer.
In some rare cases, locum tenens physicians may be considered W-2 employees and be eligible for benefits. However, this is not common.
Many medical professionals aim to build a long-term career at one hospital or practice, but you’re not likely to get that luxury with locums work. On occasion, temporary contracts can turn into permanent positions, but it’s not the standard.
Some people prefer to hold a comfortable job that they know inside and out. Temporary assignments offer less stability because you will work in different locations with new colleagues and patients you have never seen before.
This can be exciting for some clinicians but challenging for others.
Every Hospital and Practice Operates Differently
It can be exhausting to frequently change jobs.
Each hospital or practice will have a different approach to their operations. So, you will have to learn a new system each time you take on a new position. If you do not think this is something you can handle or enjoy, a locum tenens position may not be the best option for you.
Withholding Your Own Taxes
In the eyes of the IRS, locum tenens physicians are independent contractors.
You will receive a 1099, rather than a W-2, at the end of each tax year. 1099 contractors are required to withhold their own taxes and make quarterly tax payments throughout the year.
You will need to determine your individual tax rate and set aside that amount from each paycheck to make your quarterly IRS payments on time.
Keep in mind that you will also need to pay the self-employment tax, which includes your contribution to Social Security and Medicare taxes. The current self-employment tax rate is 15.3%.
How to Find Locum Tenens Jobs
It’s not difficult to find locum tenens positions.
There are a number of job boards where you can locate positions and set up job alerts. Dedicated locums staffing agencies can also help you find the right position.
Consider using one of these top staffing agencies to find a locum tenens position:
While some clinicians use their professional network or traditional online job boards to find locums positions, there are benefits to working with a locum tenens staffing agency.
Staffing agencies are similar to recruiters. They connect locums physicians with employers who want to hire them.
In addition to helping you find locum tenens assignments, agencies can also help you book travel arrangements, secure temporary housing, and assist with credentialing and privileging.
Whether you’re searching for work as a primary care physician in a rural family practice, or as an oncology or radiology specialist in a big city, new jobs become available across the country all the time. An agency can help you find them.
Keep in mind that if you plan to travel or work far from home, you will need to obtain a state license to practice medicine in that state, even if the contract is only for a short period of time.
Use the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact (IMLC) to expedite the licensing process. You only need to submit an application once to IMLC to receive licensing for all participating states. Refer to the IMLC website’s participation map to learn if the state where you want to work is a current program participant.
Signing a Locum Tenens Contract
Review your locum tenens employment contract to see an outline of the details of the job.
Make sure it addresses the following factors:
- Salary – How much you earn will depend on your position and experience. Hospitalists generally earn around $140 – $160/hour, while general surgeons can make an impressive $1,100 – $1,400/day on average.
- Pay schedule – This will depend on the shifts you take and the frequency with which you take them. Make sure your contract specifies not only how much you will be paid, but also when you will be paid.
- Housing – Some longer locum tenens positions offer temporary housing. If it’s offered and you decide to take it, make sure the contract spells out any conditions or perks that concern housing.
- Travel expenses – If you need to relocate for a position, the hospital or practice may cover your travel expenses. Be sure the contract states the type and amount of travel expenses your employer will cover.
Before signing, it’s always best to ask an employment lawyer to review the locum tenens contract.
Locum Tenens Physicians Need Malpractice Insurance Protections
Every locums physician needs malpractice insurance.
As a doctor, nurse, or physician assistant working with patients, there is always a risk of a patient or patient’s family member filing a lawsuit against you.
If you obtain a contract through a locum tenens agency, you may notice that they sometimes include malpractice insurance coverage. Most locum tenens scenarios, however, will still require you to purchase your own policy.
When purchasing a policy on your own, make sure it’s an occurrence-based policy rather than a claims-made policy. Claims-made policies require you to also purchase tail insurance, which can be costly.
Contact LeverageRx now to compare and find the right malpractice insurance policy for you.
Locum tenens work can be great for medical professionals, whether they are in between jobs, considering moving, or looking to supplement their current income.
Not only is it a great way to make extra money, it’s also an opportunity to diversify one’s healthcare experience by working across various locations and practice settings within the industry.
Locum tenens work isn’t for everyone. Even if you think it could be the right work for you, remember that you will be liable to obtain your own disability and malpractice insurance policies.
Speak with an insurance specialist today at LeverageRx to compare policies and find the best insurance carriers for your needs.