What is locum tenens? A beginner’s guide

young physician asking the question what is locum tenens

Locum tenens defines the industry that was established in 1979 to help fill staffing gaps in rural health facilities and to give those providers some much-needed relief. Today, it’s an industry used by healthcare facilities — big and small.

In modern healthcare, a locum tenens provider is a physician or advanced practice provider who fills in for another clinician while he or she is unavailable. Today, locum tenens is a flourishing practice alternative that offers countless job opportunities to providers in every healthcare field, allowing them to build their careers while ensuring care for patients who might otherwise have to go without.

If you are interested in becoming a locum tenens, we’ve created this beginner’s guide to the locums industry.

Why do providers choose locum tenens?

Physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants who adopt the locum tenens lifestyle reap numerous benefits that you don’t often find in a permanent position. Here are some of the benefits we hear most often from providers working locums:

Work/life balance 

Locum tenens clinicians control their own schedule, owning the final say over when, where, and how often they want to work. 

Hospitalist Dr. Matthew Dothager loved that locums allowed him to be very particular with the number and length of assignments he chose. “I wouldn’t necessarily have this level of flexibility if I were a staff physician,” he says. “Most positions are seven on/seven off, but with locums, I can essentially structure the schedule I want.”

doctor with stethoscope

Extra income

“The better pay I receive from working locums means I can work less while making as much — or more — than I was in a permanent position,” says anesthesiologist Dr. Albert Belardi. “And I didn’t get paid overtime. With locums, I get overtime pay.”

Competitive pay rates, zero overhead, and complimentary malpractice coverage make locum tenens practice financially attractive. Even providers who hold a permanent position often supplement their income via short-term contracts during weekends or vacations.

Travel and adventure

Since locum tenens contracts are available for every specialty in every state, providers use locum tenens as a way to explore the country or pursue seasonal recreational options. For example, skiers can spend the winter near the slopes and surfers can be near the beach as often as they like.

Internist Dr. Natalie Owens-Sloan loves working locum tenens because she’s able to explore the area where she’s on assignment, and she’s also built lasting friendships. “I love meeting new people and traveling to places I’ve never been,” she says. “I did an assignment for the summer in Alaska, and on my weeks off my family joined me and we traveled all over the state.” 

Enhanced skills  

Locum tenens providers often experience a variety of different practice settings, which enhances their CV and expands their professional expertise. Treating diverse patient populations keeps them up to date, and working with different colleagues offers a fresh perspective on medicine.

“Locums helps me acclimatize to different clinical situations,” says Dr. Simran Kalra, a pediatrician working locum tenens with Weatherby. “You have to work with people and the tools they have, and you have to adjust quickly. It keeps you on your toes.”

Different work settings

Many physicians right out of residency or fellowship — or even well-established physicians — like working locum tenens so they can essentially “try before you buy” if they’re not ready to sign a permanent contract.

It’s also a great way to learn how other providers and healthcare facilities run their practices. “I’ve been able to see other clinics and hospitals and how they work,” says Dr. Kalra. “Every place does things a bit differently. Locum tenens means working in different set-ups.”

Two locum tenens doctors

Which providers are best suited for locum tenens?

Physicians and advanced practice providers in all specialties, in every phase of their career, can benefit from accepting temporary contracts.

New physicians  

Locum tenens assignments are ideal for physicians just coming out of residency. Temporary placements let them test-drive different work settings and locations before making a long-term commitment.

“Locums affords me the opportunity to make a bit more money than I would in an office setting,” says Dr. Lee Green, a hospitalist who began working locums straight out of residency. “With the money I earn working locums, I’m able to live the rest of the year with family in South Africa.”

Mid-career physicians

Whether you are transitioning from a previous work environment or looking to explore outside interests, the flexibility afforded by locum tenens offers the ability to earn income without incurring administrative headaches, freeing up time and energy for other endeavors.

“Mid-career physicians often work locums to augment their income,” says neurologist Dr. Andrew Wilner, author of The Locum Life: A Physician’s Guide to Locum Tenens. “Locums can also be a bridge to a non-clinical career by providing an income stream until the new venture takes off.”

Late-career physicians

Highly skilled physicians in semiretirement may want to slow down but are not ready to retire completely. These physicians may use locum tenens to continue doing the work they love at their own pace. Additionally, taking assignments in different locations can be helpful in scouting out potential retirement locations.

Dr. Wilner works locum tenens because his flexible schedule has freed up time for neglected personal pursuits. “I’m also able to preserve my physician identity because I’m still practicing medicine.” 

Working locum tenens after retirement age

How do hospitals benefit from locum tenens?

Physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants who can step in and cover staffing gaps are sought after by every type of healthcare facility, from major metropolitan trauma centers to small rural clinics. Across the country, these facilities depend on qualified locum tenens providers to ensure the availability of quality patient care.

Locum tenens providers offer an immediate and cost-effective solution to staffing shortages, which can arise due to seasonal issues, such as flu season or maternity or vacation leave. Locums are also a great solution to physician burnout if you use a locums physician to step in and give your physicians some much-needed time off. And the ongoing physician shortage ensures that hospitals will continue to seek out locum tenens providers.

Neil McKay, senior director of medical operations and workforce management for MedExpress, says they frequently use locums physicians. “They’ve been an incredible resource to help with our ongoing staffing shortages, brought about in large part by the pandemic.“

What do these locum tenens terms mean?

If the thought of working locum tenens has piqued your interest, there are a few industry definitions you may want clarified before getting started:

  1. Locum tenens provider. A locum tenens provider is a physician or advanced practice provider who fills in for another clinician while he or she is unavailable. When locum tenens providers sign on with reputable staffing companies, such as Weatherby Healthcare, they operate as independent contractors, not employees. The staffing agency typically covers the cost of travel, housing, licensing, and credentialing.
  2. Assignment. Locum tenens jobs are often referred to as assignments. Once you agree to an assignment, you will sign a contract for the agreed-upon assignment length. If the facility still has a staffing need at the end of the contract, you may be offered an assignment extension.
  3. Match. Finding the right match between a provider and a facility is the most essential part of the process. The best staffing firms will offer you a dedicated consultant who is committed to fully understanding your preferences, priorities, and dislikes, thereby ensuring you are offered only mutually acceptable matches.
  4. Present. When you find a good match, your consultant will present you for the position. That is a vital step in securing an assignment. Once your consultant has presented you for a position, you are protected by an exclusive three-way relationship, between you, your consultant, and the facility.
  5. Moonlighting / Shift Work / Traveling Docs. These are just some of the nicknames people may use to refer to locum tenens providers.

How to get started

This video offers a visual introduction to getting started in the locum tenens world. To take the next step, reach out to a reliable locum tenens staffing agency that will listen to your needs and priorities. You may want to ask for recommendations from colleagues.

Good firms offer comprehensive malpractice insurance from a highly rated carrier, credentialing and licensing services, and transportation to your assignments, as well as housing once you arrive.

Related: 13 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Locum Tenens Agency

The best firms will set you up with your own consultant who is an expert in your specialty. He or she will be your dedicated, single point of contact and offer 24/7 support. Welcome to the wonderful world of locum tenens!

Weatherby Healthcare has the expertise to help you find the locum tenens assignments that are right for you. Give us a call at 954.343.3050 to speak with a consultant or view today’s locum tenens job opportunities.

Article updated November 4, 2022

About the author

Lisa Daggett

Lisa Daggett is well-versed on the topic of locum tenens staffing and was a regular contributor to LocumLife, Healthcare Traveler, and Travel Nurse magazines. She served as associate editor of RN Magazine and as an editorial assistant for Business & Health.


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