How Locum Tenens is Helping Healthcare Navigate the Physician Shortage

Between 2009 and 2014, there has been a 23% increase in the number of health systmes that use Locum Tenens to offset physician shortage


Physicians have been filling in for one another for years. Temporary physicians, also known as locum tenens, typically take over for other physicians and healthcare professionals while they’re on vacation, out sick, or need greater scheduling flexibility. Recently, there has been a significant uptick in the use of locum tenens physicians.Between 2009 and 2014, the number of healthcare systems who reported using locum tenens to offset physician shortage and turnover rose from 22% to 55%, according Healthcare Dive.

According to a recent study conducted by a major healthcare staffing firm, over 90 percent of of the 260 healthcare facilities analyzed reported using locum tenens physicians at least once in the last year. Nearly half of respondents indicated that they were currently looking for a locum tenens physician, 75 percent said they used a locum tenens physician every month and 18 percent reported using four or more per month, according to Healthcare Dive. According to the report, the top two reasons for the using locum tenens physicians were high turnover rates and the need for temporary coverage.

Top two reasons healthcare systems are using locum tenens:

  • High turnover rate

  • Need temporary coverage


Why the Shift Towards Locum Tenens Staffing?

There have been massive shifts in healthcare, with many changes prompted by the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Today, the traditional private practice model is largely giving way to the employment model, causing physician turnover to become more prevalent. Even in the midst of America’s down economy, where people typically don’t see the doctor unless they have to due to lack of insurance or inability to pay deductibles, there still aren’t enough physicians to go around.

Instead of avoiding locum tenens as a last resort, many healthcare organizations are now incorporating it as part of their staffing strategy. Among hospital leaders recently surveyed, physician retention is a top concern and temporary staffing is quickly becoming one of the most popular strategies for healthcare organizations in need of physicians. Many of today’s employed doctors want to work fewer hours, enjoy greater flexibility and take less call. As a result, hospitals are regularly using locum tenens physicians to give employed physicians greater flexibility and reduce surgery backlogs.


A Strategic Solution to Behavioral and Primary Care Physician Shortage

When it comes to the current and projected future physician shortage, some of the hardest hit areas have been in primary care and behavioral health. Consequently, these are the two most requested specialities for locum tenens. In both rural and urban communities, locum tenens behavioral health professionals are in high demand due to the fact that the workforce is shrinking faster than it can be replenished. And, because of the shortage of behavioral health MDs, there has also been a rise in demand for psychiatric nurse practitioners (NPs) as health systems try to fill in the gaps.

Healthcare facilities, regardless of size, are competing for the same limited pool of qualified primary care and behavioral health physicians, which puts considerable pressure on recruiting departments. Therus C Kolff, MD, who coined the concept of locum tenens in 1979, began the practice as a way to deliver medical care to rural areas of the United States. Today, temporary physician staffing firms are well poised to fill the gap and offer a strategic and cost-effective solution to communities that are struggling to meet the growing demand for physicians.


An Opportunity for a New Type of Physician

Despite the staffing and healthcare access challenges presented by the primary care and behavioral health shortages, it also gives rise to new opportunities for physicians who are interested in alternative career options. The use of locum tenens is now a common and accepted practice. In today’s medical landscape, it’s actually become rare to find a hospital or large medical organization that doesn’t utilize temporary physicians from time to time.

Locum tenens physicians experience a wide range of practice environments. Most locum tenens physicians complete one to three assignments per year, while 22 percent work four to six assignments and 20 percent work seven or more assignments each year. For some physicians who desire greater flexibility, traditional medical practice can feel confining. Locum tenens physicians aren’t tied to a production formula and typically don’t need to be concerned with administrative hassles, which means they can focus solely on patient care.


Maintaining Quality Care During Turbulent Times

Many physicians get into medicine because they want to travel all around, help people in meaningful ways and truly make a difference in the world. The good news for these physicians is that doctors with specialized skills are needed all over the country, especially when it comes to primary care and behavioral health. This is particularly true for small towns and rural hospitals. Locum Tenens is perfect for physicians who desire flexibility and like to call their own shots. Unlike physicians who run their own practice, locum tenens do not have to worry about overhead or investing money back into their business.

However, because healthcare organizations often have to pay for temporary lodging in addition to compensating locum tenens physicians, it can be very costly to keep them on the team for long. This is why, in many cases, healthcare organizations will replace them with a permanent staff member as quickly as possible.


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