There’s a growing physician shortage that’s left hospitals and private practices looking for reliable medical professionals. Within the next 12 years alone, there’s a projected shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians. The shortage isn't limited to just physicians, either. The nursing field is also facing a massive shortage. According to the NIH, 275,000 nurses will be needed between 2020 - 2030. Due to the COVID-19 fallout and burnout rates rising, filling these open positions is going to be difficult.

That said, there is a solution to such shortages: the locum tenens physician. While the demand for nurses and physicians remains high, the number of qualified nurses and physicians has started to fall. As such, working as a locum tenens physicians is that much more viable these days. Healthcare employers are increasingly turning to locum tenens practitioners to fill the gaps on their teams. Is becoming a locum tenens physician or nurse the right move for you?

What is a Locum Tenens Physician?

You can think of locum tenens as freelancers. In the simplest terms, locum tenens are temporary doctors, nurses, or physician assistants. These medical professionals are substitutes for doctors and other medical personnel when hospitals or private practices have openings. In fact, locum tenens is Latin for "to substitute for." How long a medical locum tenens stays at the hospital or private practice depends on the contract, but usually the term varies from a one day shift to a year-long position.

The history of locum tenens dates back to the 1970s. The federal government offered a grant to the University of Utah so they could hire temporary physicians for rural areas that needed access to better care. The program gained so much traction that hospitals and private practices all over the U.S. now rely on locum tenens. Working locum tenens allows physicians to experience different facilities in various locations without making a full-time commitment. This opens doors to unique opportunities to provide healthcare to diverse places.

Why Would a Doctor Work as a Locum Tenens?

About 85% of healthcare facilities used locum tenens physicians in 2019. The demand for locum tenens physicians is growing due to the shortage of medical professionals, but the desire to become locum tenens is growing, too, and for good reason. Being a locum tenens allows you to:

Earn supplemental income

If you’re looking to take on extra shifts but your hospital or practice doesn’t have any to offer, operating as a locum tenens could help you earn extra side income. You can choose to take as many extra shifts as you can handle, assuming there’s a need in your area.

Work when you’re in-between jobs

If you’re in-between positions, a locum tenens opportunity could help bridge the gap. Whether you’re moving, were laid off, or are simply looking for a different employer, working as a part-time doctor or temporarily could provide income in a much-needed time.

Get experience post-residency

If you’re a resident about to become an attending physician, you may not be entirely sure where you want to go or what specialty you want to focus on. Working as a locum tenens doctor can give you experience in multiple different types of practices in a short amount of time.

Make your own schedule

Locum tenens positions are much more flexible than traditional full-time medical roles. You’re only committed to the time designated in your contract, and you can opt to only take positions that align with your needs. Doctors don't get many days off, so working locum tenens gives you more control.

Work through personal life transitions

Unexpected life events happen all the time (hello covid!). If you’re going through any major life change, be it a death in the family, a divorce, a new baby, or something else, having a more flexible schedule can be a lifesaver. Working as a locum tenens offers you the ability to work more sporadically and still make a good income.

Avoid burnout

Physician burnout is a significant issue for all in the medical field, particularly doctors and nurses. 42% of doctors report that they feel burnt out. Working fewer hours or with fewer restrictions can help you avoid this state of mind. Locum tenens positions offer flexibility in contract lengths and specialties, plus you won’t be as responsible for tedious administrative tasks.

Locum Tenens Physicians Can Explore

Besides the reasons listed above to be a locum tenens medical professional, the fluidity of locum tenens allows the medical professional (you) to explore, be it in your career or around the country.

  • Test Drive Positions

    Locum tenens gives you the ability to "test drive" different roles and take on different assignments. This will give you a broader perspective of the medical landscape within your specialty, build your resume, strengthen your skills and give you time to figure out exactly what you want to do full-time.

  • Test Drive Employers

    Working for a massive hospital is a much different experience than a small private practice. If you didn't try out both options, how will you know which kind of employer you want? Or maybe test driving both options inspires you to open your own medical practice!

  • Try Different Cities

    Many people will live, work and study in the same city or part of the country their entire lives. Sure, if you have family that you want to stay near, that is one thing and understandable. But what if you don't and want to explore? Working as a locum tenens allows you that option.

It's no coincidence that many of the benefits stated here are well-known initiatives to addressing physician burnout.

The Downsides of Working as a Locum Tenens

While locum tenens are offered a lot of freedoms, there are some perks you simply won’t receive.

No benefits package

Since you’ll be considered a private contractor, you likely won’t receive any of the top doctor benefits from your employer. That means you’ll be fully responsible for health insurance and retirement benefits. In rare cases, some locum tenens will be considered W-2 employees and may be fully eligible for benefits, but this isn’t common.

No long-term job stability

Many medical professionals are looking to build a long-term career at one hospital or practice. Locum tenens don’t get that luxury, as they’re only there temporarily. If you want growth potential in one place, locum tenens positions aren’t the way to go.

Every hospital will work differently

Changing jobs frequently can be exhausting. Each hospital or practice will operate a little differently, so each time you take a new position you’ll have to relearn a new system. If this isn’t something you think you can handle, a locum tenens position may not be the best option.

It requires a lot of travel

The idea of traveling to different facilities in different locations is exciting to some, but if long car rides and airports aren’t your thing, the idea of traveling long distances for a short-term job may not be appealing.

No comfort zone

It seems obvious that if you are constantly changing employers, locations, jobs, teammates, etc. you are not in a "cushy" or comfortable job. Again, some people who seek out locum tenens work enjoys the challenge of always learning and thinking on their toes, and some don't.

How to Find Locum Tenens Physician Jobs

Finding locum tenens positions is fairly easy. There are a number of job listing sites you can look through to find the right position. Some of these sites include:

  • LocumTenens.com - You can search by title, specialty, and location. With about 90,000 listings, there’s likely an option in your area.
  • Weatherbyhealthcare.com - You can search physician, nurse, and PA positions by specialty. With over 20 years of experience working with locum tenens, Weatherby is a trusted source in the industry.
  • Comphealth.com - You can search for positions based on state, profession, and specialty. They tout over 7,000 providers placed.

Signing a Locum Tenens Contract

Locum tenens are private contractors so they rely on contracts that outline the major details of their job. It’s vital that you ensure you have a contract before taking any locum tenens position. Make sure your contract addressed the following:

  • Salary - How much you earn will depend on your position and experience, but hospitalists generally pay around $140 - $160/hour while general surgeon locum tenens can make an impressive $1,100 – $1,400/day on average.
  • Pay schedule - This will largely depend on the shifts you take and the frequency with which you take them. Make sure your contract says not only how much you’ll be paid but when you’ll see that money as well.
  • Housing - Some longer locum tenens positions offer temporary housing. If it’s offered and you decide to take it, make sure any conditions are listed within the contract.
  • Travel costs - If you need to relocate for a position, the hospital or practice may cover your travel costs. Have the contract state how much they’ll cover and the exact type of expenses they’ll cover.

Malpractice Insurance as a Locum Tenens Physician

Every locum tenens physician needs malpractice insurance. As a doctor, nurse, or physician assistant, you’re working with patients. This puts you in a situation where you could be sued by one of those patients or their family.

If you work through a locum tenens agency you may be covered under their malpractice insurance, but if you’re working on your own, you’ll need to purchase your own policy. You can compare providers and learn more about malpractice insurance here.

Taxes as a Locum Tenens Physician

Locum tenens are private contractors in the eyes of the IRS. So, rather than being W-2 employees, you’ll receive 1099 at the end of each tax year. Come tax time, you’ll use your 1099 to report your income to the IRS.

The most important thing to know about being a private contractor: you need to pay quarterly taxes. You’ll need to determine your individual tax rate and set that amount aside from each paycheck to ensure you have enough to pay the IRS each quarter. In addition, you need to pay self-employment tax, which currently sits at 15.3%. Self-employment tax makes up your social security and Medicare payments.

Key takeaways

Today's gig economy supports freelance work like never before. Although locum tenens work is not new to the medical field, it is the closest thing the profession offers in terms of flexibility and independence. All things considered, the pros of working locum tenens clearly outweigh the cons. Still, it's one thing to consider the opportunity from afar. It's another to embrace this fast-paced, transient lifestyle. For those who are interested in making this career move, you're in luck. There are plenty of opportunities for locum work that are readily available.

Christopher Murray - Writer

Christopher Murray received a B.A. in English Literature and Gender Studies from Smith College. He now lives in Maine with his husband where he spends his free time watching reruns of The X-Files and dreaming of traveling in a refurbished VW Bus while writing the next Great American Novel. Chris has extensive writing and editing experience across a range of industries, but with a specialty in personal finance and investing.

Healthcare IndustryPublished April 16, 2020