Practice happier: Locum tenens as a remedy to burnout

Illustration of physician happiness and burnout

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on physicians’ overall happiness. Medscape’s 2021 Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report found that before the pandemic 82% of doctors reported being somewhat happy or happy, but in 2020 that number dropped to only 48%. Even more alarming, Medscape’s Physician Burnout and Suicide Report found that 71% of physicians say burnout is moderately or severely impacting their lives.

Many physicians, however, have found a solution to address burnout: locum tenens. Here’s how locum tenens gave six physicians the control and flexibility they needed to balance their personal and professional lives.  

Dictating your own schedule

According to Medscape, 37% of physicians said spending too many hours at work contributes to their burnout, and 42% said a more manageable schedule would reduce it.

Hospitalist Dr. Tammy Allen says locum tenens has made burnout a ‘virtual impossibility’ for her. “Having the ability to decide how much or how often I work rejuvenates me and prevents the burnout I see in my colleagues who work for a hospital or have their own clinic.”

Pulmonary critical care physician Dr. Ronald Stiller found the schedule flexibility of locums was hugely beneficial and resigned his position to work locums full-time. “I think one of the best things is that you set your own pace, you set your own schedule. I’m just having a good time.”

A focus on patient care, not bureaucracy

Fifty-eight percent of the physicians Medscape surveyed say too many bureaucratic tasks was the main contributor to their burnout — far above the next highest concern, which is the amount of time spent working.

Hospitalist Dr. William Gruss felt the burden of dealing with the ever-increasing demands of insurance companies in his private practice.

“As time went on, I was dealing with different insurance companies, Medicaid, and Medicare, fees that were getting exorbitant, and reimbursements that were getting lower and lower,” he says. “Here I am, putting comprehensive notes into the computer and trying to do little shortcuts to make it move a little faster, but even then, by the time I was ready to see a patient I was exhausted. I was killing myself and I was kind of in a depression.”

Dr. Gruss says locums has enabled him to focus on his patients without carrying the burden of administrative work.

OB/GYN Dr. Jaqueline Brown also says she loves not having to deal with so much administrative work. “Bureaucracy makes practicing medicine so hard and it burns a lot of physicians out. A lot of that stuff gets taken out of the equation when you’re doing locums.”

Using locums to enjoy life outside of work

Family medicine physician Dr. Cheri McCue felt like she was a “squirrel in traffic,” and needed to recharge after working so hard and being so busy with her medical practice. She decided to take a locums assignment in Guam.

“Suddenly I had all this extra time because I was away from all my responsibilities at home,” she says. “What I learned working locums was when you closed the computer for the day, you were done and went home and were free.”

Seventy percent of physicians say doing activities or hobbies that they enjoy is also how they maintain their happiness and good mental health, and Dr. McCue says locums allowed her to achieve both. She took full advantage of her free time, traveling to places like Japan, running on the beach, or swimming every day before work.

Rediscovering your love of medicine

Sadly, 36% of physicians surveyed say they are more easily exasperated with patients, and 13% indicate burnout is expressed by showing their frustration in front of their patients, inhibiting the joy of practicing medicine.

Dr. Brown says locums helped her rediscover her love of medicine. “I found that I get more satisfaction out of medicine by doing locums than when I was working in a full-time practice,” she says. “I was just completely burned out and locums made me enjoy being a doctor again.”

Neurologist Dr. Madeleine Geraghty shares that she was burned out due to overworking. Locums gave her the break she needed to recover, she says, helping to reignite her love of medicine.

“There’s a quote from Oscar Wilde, where he says to an aspiring poet, ‘Only be a poet if you can be nothing else,’ and I feel the same way about being a physician. I don’t think I could be anything else.”

Finding the right work/life balance

Dr. Brown says locums helped her find the work/life balance she has always hoped to achieve. She gets more satisfaction out of medicine, and her friends and family have noticed the change locums has made to her, personally.

“I’ve been told I look like I’ve reversed age by ten years, and my stress level is so much less. I’m doing what I was trained to do, and I still have a flexible lifestyle that’s really ideal. It’s the reason I love it.”

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