Dr. Johnny Shen’s interest in medicine started with a love of biology. While pursuing a master’s degree in cancer biology he realized that as much as he loved the research, he really wanted to work with people. He applied to medical school and now is a full-time locum tenens physician practicing family medicine.
“I’ve always really liked primary care. I went into medical school not knowing exactly what kind of doctor I wanted to be, but I always believed in the traditional path of primary care and it seemed to be the most appropriate,” says Shen. “When a little kid says, ‘I want to be a doctor,’ in their mind they are thinking of the family doctor or someone who sees everything. That’s what I did in medical school in terms of training. I just felt I was more suitable and more excited when it came to seeing different things as opposed to one focused subject.”
During residency he started thinking about his future and realized that signing a multi-year contract was not what he wanted. But his schooling and residency didn’t talk about alternative working options, so he was left to research options himself.
He was on the Student Doctor Network forums one day and found a physician who was posting about locum tenens. After asking a lot of questions, he knew locums was what he wanted to do.
“I started researching locum tenens when I was a second year because in my mind I didn’t want to just come out from residency, sign with a company and just remain there for years with all my vacation days set and all that,” shares Shen. “It just seemed like it was a pretty big decision to make straight out of residency, especially with something like primary care where you are so flexible and you can do all sorts of things.”
As he approached the end of his residency, he had already spoken with a locum tenens agency and set up his first job. A week after his residency ended, he was working as a full-time locum tenens doctor. After some initial nervousness he quickly realized that life as a full-fledged physician wasn’t really all that different from his experiences as a resident, although now he was in charge.
“When I was a resident I loved having someone watch over me and say, ‘Hey, this is not right. Do it this way.’ But when I became an attending physician, I really enjoyed that I was doing this for myself and I was working directly with a patient without having someone else to kind of make the decisions for me. That was really rewarding,” says Shen.
In addition to being his own boss, Dr. Shen enjoys the way he is treated as a locums physician. When his peers ask him about locum tenens, he compares it to being a movie star with a personal agent who takes care of all the necessities.
“I glamorize it sometimes and tell them, ‘You know what? There’s something called locum tenens. You’re an independent contractor. You get to pick your dates to work. You get to travel and they pay for most of your travel expenses and lodgings,’” he says. “It makes me feel like I’m an athlete or some sort of movie actor because I have an agent who finds shifts and gigs for me and I get to travel. That makes me feel like I’m in control of my own career, and then I get to find out who wants to pay me more. Who can provide me the better reward for the work that I do.”
In addition to near-celebrity status, working locum tenens gives a physician — whether they are doing it full-time, in-between jobs or just to make a little extra money in addition to a permanent job — an opportunity to work in a wide variety of settings and places.
“I’ve been exposed to all different types of facilities and different populations — underserved populations and very healthy affluent populations,” he shares. “That kind of training where you are put in a different place and have to adapt is underestimated.”
“For every single new job I take, I take a little piece from my last one and try to use it as a learning point and then apply it every single time I go to a new place.”
With locum tenens assignments the physician gets to decide where, when and how much they will work. For Dr. Shen, this led to great work/life balance. If he needs to make more money he picks up a longer assignment. If he wants to take a long vacation or take extra time to visit family, he doesn’t have to use vacation days. Instead, he doesn’t take any assignments during that time.
“A lot of physicians are aiming for the perfect work/life balance. I think locums definitely affords that flexibility, because I basically get to work as much as I want,” Dr. Shen says. “I have time to spend with my family, my girlfriend and my hobbies outside of work.”