Updated Sept. 9, 2022
The lifestyle of a general surgeon is one of the busiest in medicine. According to the American College of Surgeons, these physicians average a 50- to 60-hour workweek, not including call duty. Demands on their time are especially heavy for solo practitioners, members of small private groups, or staff at small- or mid-sized hospitals. For some, general surgery locum tenens can alleviate some of these demands.
“For critical access facilities in smaller communities, the general surgeon is a critical position. They are a central part of the hospital’s range of care,” notes Mark Chilton, director of the Weatherby Healthcare Surgery Division.
That extensive responsibility, however, can wear on clinicians, and lead to burnout —or even push a physician to make a career change.
According to the Medscape Lifestyle Report 2022: General Surgery, nearly half of the physicians queried admitted to experiencing burnout. Respondents cited excessive bureaucratic tasks and spending too many hours at work as the top two factors contributing to their professional dissatisfaction.
But a career in general surgery doesn’t have to be so consuming that your practice eliminates a sense of proportionality with other elements of life. Locum tenens empowers physicians to exert more control over their time and careers, and hopefully keep burnout at bay. Here’s how:
1. Take control over scheduling
After decades of practicing as a general surgeon, Demetri Poulis, MD, rarely found time to enjoy his home on the scenic Outer Banks islands of North Carolina. Tired of the unrelenting demand of his professional duties, Dr. Poulis began accepting locum tenens contracts three years ago, and immediately appreciated the difference in scheduling commitments.
“It’s the most sense of control I’ve had,” says Dr. Poulis. “I’m a different person. In the last three years, it has taken 90% of the stress off.”
Locum tenens provides physicians of all specialties the opportunity to decide when and how often they agree to short-term contracts. However, this can be particularly liberating for general surgeons. In permanent positions, the burden of clinic hours, scheduled surgeries, and regularly covering call can interfere with personal time. When exclusively accepting temporary positions, and not using them to supplement a permanent job, there are no office hours or call duty to fulfill when off contract. Plus, locum tenens surgeons don’t have to secure coverage to take vacations or attend family events without the worry of an emergency cutting it short.
General surgeon Dr. Steven Berman appreciates the schedule flexibility. “One advantage of locums is I can work as hard — or as little — as I want to,” he says. “I can work part time if I want to. Starting next year if I’m going to work at all it’s going to be no more than a weekend a month. And I have that choice as a locum tenens. I couldn’t possibly choose this schedule through a private practice environment.”
2. Refine and enhance clinical skills
Stepping into a new clinical environment is always an opportunity to gain new experiences. For general surgeons, going to another facility is a chance to exercise skills that may not get flexed very often. Because many contracts are at smaller facilities that do not have regular access to gastrointestinal specialists, locum tenens surgeons may have to perform upper and lower scopes in addition to bread-and-butter abdominal procedures. Some hospitals may request general surgeons scrub in on caesarian sections. Also, locum tenens surgeons may be the first line of defense in trauma cases.
“Surgeons are challenged to wear more hats on locum tenens assignments. They can expand their skill sets and stretch their professional development,” says Eliana Dougherty, a Weatherby Healthcare sales manager for general, vascular, and trauma surgery.
3. Log more surgical hours
Belonging to large private practice groups or being on staff at large hospitals means clinical and emergent demands are divvied up amongst many surgeons. On the one hand, that can lead to more reasonable scheduling. On the other hand, it can mean young physicians out of residency or fellowship may not be able to log as many hours in the operating room as they’d like. Short-term contracts present more opportunities to scrub in because locum tenens physicians are more likely to be one of only a few surgeons on site.
“Locums has given me the chance to go to lots of different settings and adapt to those settings, and now I feel like I have the ability to practice just about anywhere,” says general surgeon Dr. William Barrett.
Dr. Barrett also uses the time between assignments to work with medical missions, enabling him to gain the unique experience and perspective of a third-world physician — which allows him to use his surgical skills and adapt to less-than-ideal conditions.
“I work with an organization called Mercy Ships, where we work in ports of third-world countries and treat patients on board the ship. It’s basically a floating hospital. Doing this kind of medical mission work really helps me flex my surgical muscles and work creatively and as a team.”