It’s true, in the early days some people thought doctors who worked as locum tenens might be snake-oil salesmen. They questioned our ability to get and hold good jobs and refused to introduce us to their sisters. They said, “What? You’re Dr. Terry Cloth and you’re calling about local tennis?!”
Over the past 30 years I have had the great pleasure of watching the evolution of this unique way to do the work we love. It has become what many of you will agree is the purest form of practice available to physicians today.
Here’s a quick look at how it happened: Shortly after I completed med school in 1976, I joined a group called the Health Systems Research Institute, a non-profit formed by the University of Utah, the Intermountain Regional Medical Program, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Our goal was to develop innovative solutions to rural healthcare challenges. I lead a team that managed 22 clinics and five hospitals in nine western states and had the privilege of serving as team leader for Yellowstone National Park Medical Services.
Yeah, it sounds great, but back then—as now—keeping physicians in these rural practices was really difficult. And the ones we did recruit were at risk of quick burnout because they were on call almost all the time and never felt they could get away from their practices. We realized that we needed a “circuit rider” to provide coverage and give these docs a break with the peace of mind that their patients would be well cared for and their practices managed responsibly. Why not? Episcopalian priests had been doing it for centuries. We realized we were on to something, and went on to establish the first commercial locum tenens company in 1979.
The changes in US demographics, in generational attitudes toward work and careers, in technology, in healthcare worker supply and demand have made the landscape for locum tenens even more inviting and important. The wave has moved well beyond primary care, and physicians in just about every medical specialty are in demand for temporary assignments. International opportunities are opening up in every country with a comparable medical education system. And the work ranges from weekend call to a year or longer, with every option in between. The stigma is gone, replaced by respect from colleagues, appreciation for the much-needed help, and maybe a little envy for the freedom and flexibility locum tenens affords.
On the brink? Take the plunge. You will emerge from your experience with a better understanding of your strengths and priorities, a clear view of your value, and a stronger ability to negotiate for what really matters in the subsequent stages of your career.