How can we redefine locum tenens?

Physician burnout and shortage have a profound impact on the ability to deliver quality, accessible health care in the United States — especially in rural areas where specialists are scarce. Burnout is costing the U.S. health care system roughly $4.6 billion a year, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Another study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings suggested 54% of physicians have reported experiencing at least one symptom of burnout.

Demand for physicians growing faster than supply is exacerbating the issue.

The U.S. is expected to see a shortage of nearly 122,000 physicians by 2032, according to data published by the Association of American Medical Colleges. It’s time to change the way we think about staffing strategies to address this looming issue.

Locum tenens as part of the solution

Locum tenens has traditionally been associated with temporary coverage during times of clinician shortage. However, a recent survey by indicated a high likelihood of clinicians and health care organizations pursuing locum tenens opportunities within the next 12 to 24 months.

Locum tenens improves work-life balance, the number one career driver for clinicians, according to the survey report. It allows us to have more control of our schedules, avoid administrative tasks, and it provides compensation transparency before ever meeting for an interview.

Working locum tenens is growing as a popular long-term career choice because it frees up highly-trained clinicians to pursue career opportunities on their terms, in the practice settings they prefer.

Since locum tenens clinicians are exposed to best practices across a diverse set of specialties and environments, they elevate the quality of patient care. Most locum tenens clinicians are proficient in multiple electronic health records, making onboarding and orientation seamless. In fact, forward-thinking health care organizations are increasingly leveraging locum tenens clinicians’ critical feedback on how they can provide better care and enhance the patient experience.

At the regional medical center (in a “difficult to recruit” geographical location) where I am the Administrative Director of the Intensivist Program, locum tenens clinicians have been indispensable in our ability to provide uninterrupted critical care services. For health care organizations, locum tenens staffing helps alleviate clinician burnout and shortages by filling roles as needs ebb and flow.

Hiring locum tenens clinicians often proves to be more efficient, and when a position goes unfilled, health care organizations are potentially leaving millions of dollars on the table in unrealized revenues. Once in place, locum tenens clinicians can help organizations expand their service lines, provide access to specialists, relieve existing staff workload, keep the operating room running, manage throughput in the emergency department, and cover call. They are also part of a growing natural progression in health care — telemedicine. Locum tenens clinicians are being used in telehealth settings, allowing the flexibility to simply video chat with a patient for a consult or provide a second opinion to another physician.

Utilizing locum tenens clinicians ultimately benefits patient care while positively impacting the bottom line. Among the available strategies to deal with the current challenges in clinician recruitment, the locum tenens model can undoubtedly evolve into a viable and attractive long-term strategy for the provision of everyday health care access.

Sridhar Rajamani is a pulmonary physician and member of the advisory board,

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