After spending 28 years in private practice in Columbia, Missouri, medical oncologist Dr. Mark Vellek decided he was going to retire. He’d been feeling for a while that his partners were seeing patients as dollar signs rather than people. Plus, the burden of seeing up to 45 patients a day was just becoming too much for him. “My mental health wasn’t going to survive any longer in the position I was in,” he says.
But on his last day in clinic, he decided to look into locum tenens as a career alternative that would allow him to continue practicing as a medical oncologist. What he found was the freedom to practice the way he’d always wanted to.
An alternative way to practice oncology
It started with a conversation with a Weatherby Healthcare consultant about his options. “They provided me with a very interesting offer which I hadn’t really considered,” he says. “I didn’t really know anything about locums other than the fact you can go places and work. I wasn’t really sure how that worked.”
When he heard there was an open locum tenens assignment on Maui, he was in. And he’s happy he took it. “I left private practice, the partners, the stress, and the politics. Locums allows me to do what I think I do best and that’s concentrate on patients.”
Finding your own path
Oncologist Dr. Sarah Ali was feeling similar pressure. “As a newly graduated physician I went into a private practice for eight years. It was a beautiful practice, but I was seeing over 30 patients a day. I knew there was another way.”
Dr. Ali says she wasn’t actively considering locums when she first talked to a Weatherby consultant, but it was something she was willing to explore. She had been studying integrative medicine for a while and wanted to incorporate it into her oncology practice. It turned out that one of the first assignments her consultant presented to her was in a practice doing just that.
“This opportunity was heaven sent,” Dr. Ali says. “My first assignment was in Colorado, and it so happened that this particular position had an integrative oncology program already in it. Things just worked out perfectly. It was just what I was looking for.”
Dr. Ali says she wants to continue her training and focus on integrative medicine. It turned out that Colorado was a great place to start. “I learned about energy healing, crystals, aromatherapy, acupuncture, and massage here, and I want to combine that with oncology.”
Time for a deeper doctor/patient relationship
Dr. Ali says that now she has been working locum tenens, she enjoys practicing oncology again. She sees fewer patients and has more time to nurture a stronger relationship with them. “It’s important to establish a rapport with your patients. I had more time with them compared to my other practice. I was able to contribute so much more meaning within each 30-minute visit and my patients really appreciated that. I want to spend quality time, not be rushed.”
Dr. Vellek says he sees half the number of patients per day that he was seeing in private practice, which gives him more time to learn more about them personally.
“The amount of time I get to actually spend with patients and talk with them — not just about their illness — but ‘Hey, I see you’re sad today. What’s going on?’ I’ve been told about patients’ family dynamics, which is a deeper level of care. In private practice, that’s just not possible.”
Dr. Vellek says another benefit of locums is being able to prioritize his patients and attend tumor boards, which is very important to him. “I don’t have to go to hospital meetings, I don’t have to go to dinner meetings. All I have to do is take care of the patient. It’s just freeing.”
More time with family and friends
Dr. Vellek has found that the flexibility of locums allows him to spend more time with his mother, which is especially important to him now that her health is declining. He recently took three months off between assignments to help her through a particularly difficult time. “I was able to sit back and concentrate on family. I took my mom to doctor appointments. I was able to be there,” he says. “Before locums, I hadn’t taken off that much time ever. That’s what locums can do.”
Being a social person, Dr. Ali makes new friends easily wherever she goes, and locum tenens gives her plenty of opportunity to meet new people in new places. She also says that being in scenic Colorado gave her friends and family a good reason to visit her. “I had so many people come out I kind of reached max capacity. It was so much fun because you’re in a new area, and you can enjoy it with all your old friends and family.”
Planning for the future
For now, Dr. Vellek says he’s happy working locums in semiretirement. “It’s very refreshing to get back to basics and to foster the physician/patient relationship I really didn’t have time for in private practice. Now I make time to do that because I’m sort of on my own schedule.”
His Weatherby consultant finds him assignments that allow him to stay close to home so he can be near his mother. “I’m looking for sort of permanent options, but for now, my consultant helps me figure out the best options.”
Since Dr. Ali’s assignment in Colorado has shown her what it’s like to incorporate integrative medicine into oncology, she’s excited to put it into practice once she’s ready to accept a permanent position. “This experience was so positive for me that I feel like I can keep doing locums until I find the right fit.”