Locum Tenens: Resurfacing a 45-Year-Old Healthcare Workforce Solution

Locum Tenens: Resurfacing a 45-Year-Old Healthcare Workforce Solution

Two persistent challenges loom large in healthcare today: the physician shortage and the burnout epidemic among healthcare professionals. As patient demand continues to outpace the availability of medical providers, the strain on the healthcare system is getting worse. As a result, physicians find themselves facing overwhelming workloads and inadequate support, leading to alarming rates of burnout and, in some cases, driving providers to leave the field altogether.

Amidst these challenges, an age-old concept is gaining attention as a promising solution: locum tenens. This Latin term, meaning “to hold the place of,” refers to the practice of temporary medical staffing. Originally conceived in 1979 to address the needs of underserved populations, locum tenens has evolved into a flexible and vital component of modern healthcare staffing strategies. How exactly does this locum tenens model work? Let’s take a deeper look.

Filling critical gaps in care

For many within the healthcare community, the concept of locum tenens remains unfamiliar territory. According to internal research conducted by CHG Healthcare, most current locum tenens providers first heard about it through friends or colleagues, and one-third of physicians said they would have liked more information on locum tenens from their residency/fellowship program. In essence, locum tenens providers step in to fill temporary vacancies, whether due to physician shortages, personal leaves, or facility recruitment gaps. This practice model extends beyond physicians to encompass physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs), offering a dynamic solution to staffing challenges across diverse healthcare settings.

Practicing medicine outside the box

In addition to serving as a very critical stopgap for hospitals and health systems, many providers are seeking alternatives to the traditional models of practicing medicine. Modio’s CEO and founder, Kirk Heath, MD, wrote in Physicians Practice, “I practiced as a locum tenens surgeon for 10 years — I needed flexibility when I was launching my technology company, but I also genuinely enjoyed not being tied down to a brick-and-mortar practice.” 

Locum tenens offers a path toward greater flexibility, allowing providers to tailor their work schedules to align with personal and professional priorities, and more flexibility is what many residents are looking for. A key finding from Weatherby Healthcare’s latest career guide showed 91% of residents polled value work-life balance and workplace culture over compensation.  

According to Dr. Trevor Cabrera, “Because I chose to work locum tenens, the path less traveled by residents, I was able to broaden my clinical experience, discover flexibility in the way I practice medicine, gain insight into how the healthcare system works, learn the value of humility, and with the great compensation, I had more control over my finances.”

Navigating misconceptions about locum tenens

Despite its growing relevance, locum tenens remains subject to misconceptions within the healthcare community. One prevalent myth suggests that locum tenens physicians are less skilled or unable to secure permanent positions. In reality, locum tenens providers are highly skilled professionals who play a critical role in addressing staffing shortages and delivering quality care in underserved areas. According to Dr. Heath, “I would argue a locum tenens provider is more frequently and thoroughly vetted than a sample family medicine doctor who has been at the same practice for 45 years.” Further, data shows that the overall impression of locum tenens is trending upwards, with most physicians (81%) saying they had a positive experience working locum tenens, according to CHG’s 2024 State of Locum Tenens Report. The report also showed that healthcare organizations continue to increase their use of locum tenens physicians, with nearly half (46%) increasing locums usage in 2022 compared to the prior year.

Provider credentialing plays a big role in not only ensuring providers (whether locum tenens or permanent staff) are highly qualified and properly licensed, but also enabling providers to practice in different states. Credentialing can also be a big hurdle for locum tenens because of the complexities associated with the process. For the best experience, physicians and healthcare organizations should work with an experienced agency that has robust credentialing processes in place. For example, partnering with staffing companies equipped with expert credentialing staff and cloud-based credentialing software not only expedites the process ensuring providers are verified quickly, but also cuts through the layers of red tape that often surrounds credentialing. The right staffing agency will be able to handle the provider’s credentialing from start to finish so that providers can begin working more swiftly and efficiently when and where they want.

As healthcare continues to evolve and innovate, it’s clear that locum tenens offers a tangible solution for healthcare organizations and providers alike, with flexibility, the ability to provide care for underserved populations, and a way to address high patient demand. Dr. Heath shares, “There are many different reasons a doctor would choose this direction. Freedom and flexibility of where and when you practice are two big benefits as is the compensation. The fact is there is always a critical need to fill somewhere. We need more resources out the gate for medical students and residents that locum tenens is a viable, impactful path to take.”

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