Can locum tenens work solve physician burnout?

It’s no secret that most physicians are unhappy with the way things are going in healthcare. Surveys report high levels of job dissatisfaction, burnout and even suicide. In fact, some believe that up to a third of the US physician work force is planning to leave the profession in the next 3 years — an alarming statistic.

Direct primary care practices are touted as the best way to restore patient and provider satisfaction. Those brave enough to cut out the “middle man” (i.e. health insurers, both public and private) find a remarkable reduction in billing paperwork, unrecovered fees, and electronic documentation requirements. I know many physicians who have made the switch and are extremely happy to be able to spend most of their time in direct patient care, unfettered by most rules, regulations, and coding systems. They can solve problems via phone, email, text, video chat, or in-office as the need arises without having to worry about whether or not their manner of interaction will be reimbursed.

Direct primary care is probably the best way to find freedom and happiness in practicing outpatient medicine. But where does that leave physicians who are tied to hospital care due to the nature of their specialty (surgeons, intensivists, anesthesiologists, etc.)? Is there any way for them to find a brighter way forward?

I have found that working as a locum tenens hospital-based physician has dramatically improved my work satisfaction, and it may do so for you too. Here’s why:

1. You can take as much time off as you want, anytime you want. Do not underestimate the power of frequent vacations on your mental health. The frenetic pace of the hospital is much more tolerable in short doses. My attitude, stamina, and ability to stay focused is dramatically improved by working only 2-3 week stretches at a time. When I feel good, I can spread the cheerfulness, and I am happy to spend longer hours at work to give my patients more of my time.

2. You can avoid most political drama. Hospitals are incredibly stressful environments filled with hierarchical and territorial land mines. Being a short-timer allows you to avoid many conflicts. Administrators never nag you, or hold you responsible for perceived departmental deficiencies. You don’t need to attend committee meetings or become involved in personality quirk arbitrage. You can stay above the fray, focusing purely on the patients.

3. You learn all kinds of new things. Exposure to different patient populations, hospital expertise and different peer groups exposes you to a broader swath of technology and humanity. No longer will you be tied to the regional practice idiosyncrasies of a single hospital — you’ll learn how to tackle problems from many different angles. That knowledge earns you respect, and serves to cross-pollinate your own specialty, making you — and those you learn from — better doctors.

4. You are free to leave. There’s something refreshing about knowing that you can leave a place that you don’t like without any repercussions. No matter how unpleasant a locums assignment, it will end, and you can saunter off to brighter pastures.

5. You make more money. Believe it or not, locums work can be quite lucrative if you find the right assignments. I know a team of hospitalists who travel the country together, negotiating higher rates since they are a “one stop” solution. Their housing, travel, and cars are paid for by the agency, and they have take home pay (before taxes) around $350,000 per year. I personally think that working that many hours as a locum tenens physician kind of defeats the purpose of avoiding burnout, but some people like to do it that way.

6. You can live in the warm states in the winter, and the cold ones in the summer. Enough said.

7. You can try before you buy. Maybe you’re not sure where you want to sink down career roots. Or maybe you’re not sure you’ll like living in a certain city or part of the world? Maybe your family isn’t sure they want to move to a new location? Locum tenens assignments are the perfect way to try before you buy.

8. You can use your experience to become an excellent consultant. With long term exposure to various hospital systems, you are in a unique position to develop an encyclopedic knowledge of best practices. Sharing how other hospitals have solved their challenges can spark reform at other institutions. You can become a real force for positive change, not just on a micro level, but system and state-wide.

Working as a locum tenens physician may enhance your career satisfaction and promote professional advancement. What it will not solve, however, is the following:

1. You still have to work within the framework of bureaucracy endemic to hospitals. You’ll need to learn to use multiple different EMR systems and fill out most of the same paperwork that you do as a full-timer. This is painful at first, but once you’ve mastered the most common EMR systems (I’ve only really encountered 5 different ones in 2 years of locum tenens work) you’ll find a clinical rhythm that fits into most frameworks.

2. You will be living out of a suitcase. If the disruption of frequent travel is too much for you (or your family) to bear, then perhaps the locums lifestyle is not for you.

3. You will be annoyed by the process of getting multiple medical licenses and hospital credentialing. Agencies try to help with this burden, but mostly, you’ll need to suffer through this part yourself.

4. You will have to live with some degree of uncertainty. Part of the nature of working as a locum tenens physician is that clients (hospitals) change their minds frequently. They try to fill open positions with local staff or hire additional full-timers, using locums as their more expensive back ups. Assignments fall through frequently, so you’ll need to be ready to change course quickly.

Overall, I believe that locum tenens work can provide the practice freedom that many hospital-based physicians crave. If you’re eager to get off the unrelenting clinical treadmill, this is an easy way to do it. At a recent assignment near New Hampshire, I mused at the license plates that I passed on my way to work: “Live free or die” is their state motto. And I think it captures my sentiments exactly.

Val Jones is founder and CEO, Better Health.

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