Staffing shortages have hurt healthcare practices nationwide. Staffing industry analysts from the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts that by 2034, the U.S. could experience a physician shortage of up to 124,000 physicians. And since the pandemic began, 1 in 5 healthcare workers has left their position, (to read more about the healthcare staffing shortage, read our ebook here).
If your practice is struggling with healthcare and physician staffing, you may need to implement a creative solution. “Locum tenens” staffing, a Latin term for “to substitute” or “to hold the place of,” may help you fill staffing gaps. It can also provide other benefits for your healthcare practice.
Continue reading to learn how locum tenens staffing works and why it may be the right choice for your practice.
What Is Locum Tenens?
Locum tenens is a form of temporary staffing that fills in gaps in the schedule with short-term physicians. This staffing procedure can look different across healthcare practices, but many practices use locum tenens to:
- Fill temporary gaps in the schedule due to medical leave
- Fill odd shifts that permanent staff cannot accommodate
- Provide continued care when physicians go on vacation
- Reduce the burdens of physician shortages
Locum tenens is typically only available for advanced practice providers, such as physicians, physician assistants, or nurse practitioners. Nurses and other healthcare professionals use other methods of short-term staffing, such as travel nursing.
Most healthcare practices structure locum tenens positions as contract work. You can contract a physician, nurse practitioner, or other healthcare professionals for a specific amount of time. In the contract, you’ll state:
- Their required hours
- Their hourly pay or flat-rate assignment pay
- Any stipends you will provide, such as housing or food stipends
- The potential to extend the contract at its completion
You can find temporary physicians through a locum tenens agency, such as AMN Healthcare. Many experienced physicians spend years or even their entire careers moving from hospital to hospital through a staffing agency. These staffing structures benefit healthcare practices and physicians, but they have downsides you should also consider before bringing on locum tenens staff.
What Do Medical Thought-Leaders Have to Say About Locum Tenens?
Question: Do you ever use locum tenens to staff your practice? Why or why not?
|I do not. The way our practice is set up, our patients look for consistency in seeing the same doctor at each encounter. It goes according to our core principles in the office, “personalize care.”
– Kevin Gee, OD
|We do not. That is not to say that we may not consider this in the future. Eye care is becoming increasingly specialized with the diagnostics and software that we are using. As such, when we hire employees, ideally we are looking to hire long-term employees.
– Mile Brujic, OD
|In the past, I have on occasion used relief veterinarians to cover vacation for my regular employed doctors. Because our practice had multiple veterinarians it was often possible for us to cover all our shifts by simply adjusting our schedule.
– Debbie Boone, CVPM
Question: What are your thoughts on the ROI of locum tenens staffing?
I believe it is profitable for the moment. There are practices that serve patients that just don’t care what doctor they see or need something quick. I think that that may be the best for locus tenens staffing.
– Kevin Gee, OD
|The ROI of a Locum depends on the financial compensation paid to the Locum. However, without a provider present, no revenue would be generated and you may need a Locum to serve as a temporary medical director in the absence of the regular medical director.
– Jay Shorr, MBM-C
The Benefits of Locum Tenens Staffing
Locum tenens provides several benefits as a method of accommodating staffing shortages:
Flexibility and Staff Coverage
A survey of over 500 physicians found that the opportunity to have a flexible schedule was the top reason for working locum tenens staffing assignments. The flexibility of this staffing method also benefits healthcare practices.
Locum tenens lets your practice fill short-term scheduling shortages quickly and effectively. You won’t have to waste time on a lengthy hiring and onboarding process for a temporary gap in the schedule. You also won’t need to search high and low for a part-time physician who can accommodate your unique, specific scheduling needs.
Instead, you can benefit from the flexibility of placing a locum tenens assignment in your gaps in the schedule. When full-time physicians return to work or the opportunities for new, permanent positions arise, you can take the locum tenens provider out of the schedule just as easily as you added them in.
Cost-Effectiveness of Locum Tenens
Locum tenens physicians do not come with many of the associated costs of hiring a permanent medical professional for your team. (However, the hourly wage for locum tenens physicians is usually higher than the rate for permanent providers, which we will discuss below.)
When you hire a locum tenens healthcare provider through an agency, you won’t need to pay for the costs associated with:
- Paid time off
- Retirement plans
- Staff turnover
You also won’t need to worry about the implications of letting a locum provider you no longer need go. For instance, you won’t need to offer a severance package.
As a healthcare provider, you know the benefits of continuity of care. Patients who receive consistent, quality care over time have better health outcomes and report higher satisfaction rates. But with global medical staffing shortages, continuity of care has been on the back burner for many hospitals.
Offering locum tenens work is an excellent way to prioritize continued care in your healthcare organization. When primary care physicians leave your organization, you can temporarily replace them with locum tenens providers while searching for long-term doctors to match existing patients with.
Locum tenens also ensures that patients have access to healthcare when they need it—even during times of low staffing. This benefit is particularly important for areas of the healthcare industry that require ongoing, frequent patient care, such as physical therapy. Patients won’t need to wait weeks or months for appointments to open up, reducing the risk of their conditions worsening in the meantime.
New Perspectives and Expertise
Locum tenens physicians often spend years of their careers substituting for other doctors. By the time they reach your healthcare practice, they bring a wealth of experience, knowledge, and skills that can benefit your other staff and patients.
Different healthcare practices do things differently. Elements such as the charting system, the order in which you complete patient exams, and the available treatments can vary significantly. When a physician has experience in many different healthcare practices, they can provide valuable insights into your practice’s systems and techniques. By staying open to feedback from your short- and long-term staff, you can streamline patient care and administration.
The Disadvantages of Locum Tenens Staffing
While locum tenens can solve several issues in healthcare facilities, it isn’t a universal solution to all staffing shortages. This staffing solution presents a few disadvantages that your organization should consider as well:
Lack of Continuity
While locum tenens can support continued care to an extent, the concept of temporary staffing means changing providers and a lack of continuity.
Locum tenens jobs are short-term. While the length of assignments can vary between a few shifts and over a year of full-time work, these positions end eventually. If you operate a medical facility that provides ongoing, long-term patient care, the patients who see your temporary physicians will need to switch providers eventually.
Seeing the same doctor promotes many benefits for patients. One BMJ study even found that continuity of doctor care is associated with lower mortality rates. But with locum tenens, you diminish that opportunity.
Of course, this disadvantage may not be as important for healthcare practices that see patients on a short-term basis or that don’t require continuity of care, such as emergency medical facilities.
Quality of Care
Locum tenens healthcare staffing may make it more challenging for your medical facility to regulate the quality of care.
Permanent physicians have a longer onboarding process than many other positions. While some healthcare facilities onboard staff in as little as 90 days, new physicians typically spend months shadowing other doctors before receiving a full daily schedule.
With locum tenens staffing, long onboarding processes are not possible. These staffing positions are usually short-term and immediate. While temporary physicians may receive a few days of training, they generally do not undergo the same onboarding processes as long-term doctors. As a result, a new locum tenens physician may not have the experience to match the quality of care of your long-term physicians.
Credentialing is another lengthy process involved in hiring physicians. Credentialing involves evaluating a physician’s experience, training, and education to ensure their qualifications for a role and protect the medical facility from liability.
While a locum tenens staffing firm will conduct credentialing processes before working with a physician, these processes may differ from your healthcare practice’s typical credentialing. As such, you may not be sure that a medical professional conforms to your standards.
Your practice may minimize this disadvantage by working with a staffing firm with comparable credentialing processes.
Cost of Locum Tenens
Locum tenens staffing may cost less than hiring permanent staff for short-term positions. But if you plan to work with a locum tenens provider long-term, you’ll likely pay a lot more.
One of the reasons doctors like locum tenens staffing is the higher hourly wages. Locum tenens physicians make an average of $128 per hour, while permanent physicians make closer to $117 an hour. If your facility is experiencing a staffing crisis, you’ll likely need to pay more to secure a physician quickly who meets your specific scheduling needs.
If your practice is already low on capital, hiring locum tenens can plummet your profitability. But if staffing shortages are putting your practice at risk of closure, temporary positions may provide the solution to get back on your feet.
Getting the Best Care From Locum Tenens
Here is what Debbie Boone, (CVPM, speaker, and consultant), had to say about getting the best care and return on investment from your locum tenens staff:
As with any doctor, a veterinarian (whether on staff or relief) who communicates well with clients, practices good quality medicine and a works well with the team can certainly be productive. Planning their work schedule appropriately is an important part of the equation along with preparing them by sharing your standard operating procedures and setting expectations beforehand. Having them work with an experienced veterinary technician in your practice, who knows the clients and the way your practice works and where your tools live is very helpful.
– Debbie Boone, CVPM
Other Ways to Ease Workload with Smaller Staff
Locum tenens opportunities aren’t the only solution to staffing shortages. If your medical facility is operating with a smaller-than-normal staff, taking measures to reduce the staff workload and streamline rote tasks can help.
Here are two additional ways to adjust your processes for a smaller staff:
Investing in Technology to Simplify or Automate Common Tasks
As a healthcare facility, your practice should always be looking for ways to digitize, automate, and modernize your processes. Doing so can improve your credibility with patients and reduce the workload for staff, promoting better staff care and reducing burnout.
A few of the numerous processes you can automate with modern technology are:
- Patient scheduling
- Patient check-ins
- Appointment reminders
- Patient triaging
- Patient billing
- Employee and patient schedule creation
- Insurance pre-authorization
- Medical coding
How many of these processes does your facility conduct manually each day? The more tasks you can automate or simplify with technology, the less of a burden staffing shortages will place on your practice.
To save time as you adopt automation technology, consider choosing a single platform that automates all of the above processes, such as Weave Medical Software.
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Training Office Staff to Cover Some of the Doctors’ Tasks
If your physicians are spread thin, consider training office staff to cover the basic tasks your physicians currently complete. For instance, your office staff can learn how to conduct patient questionnaires at the beginning of appointments.
Of course, be sure to limit these tasks to ones that only require basic training and don’t disrupt the quality of care for patients. Also, consider whether the time necessary to train office staff is worth the time your physicians will save by no longer needing to complete those tasks.
Weave: Intuitive Automation Software for Doctors
Hiring a temporary physician, physician assistant, or another advanced practitioner through a locum tenens company is a solution to consider if your facility is struggling with staffing. Make sure you look at other ways to increase your practice efficiency and free up time and resources by utilizing patient automation software.
Weave can streamline, simplify and automate numerous processes for your office, leaving more time to dedicate to patient and staff retention. Learn more about how Weave can help save your office time and effort with a free demo.