RK Devlin, MD, FIDSA, shares her advice on what physicians can do to ensure a locum tenens assignment is a positive experience from start to finish.
As an infectious diseases locum provider, I worked continuously for two years at three lengthy hospital assignments away from home. This was during the pandemic, so the jobs and the travel were challenging, and it became increasingly important for me to find ways to make my locum tenens experience more positive and comfortable. By doing these seven things, I was able to have some much-needed respite. While we all have our self-care rituals while on assignment, I hope these tips will help you stay happy and healthy during your locums assignments.
1. Communicate your preferences
The first step to ensuring a positive locum tenens experience is to clearly communicate your practice and travel preferences to your recruiter. Being honest about the type and amount of work you want to do is imperative, as those choices allow your recruiter to match you with a job opportunity that best meets your expectations.
My assignment preference is to work on an inpatient infectious disease consultative service at a smaller community-based teaching institution. I’ve let my recruiter know this in advance, so this way I know what to expect when I arrive at my assignment. I’ve also communicated that I don’t like working more than seven days in a row, more than two weeks a month, or more than three to six months total. And I have no interest in overtime. For me, a manageable consult burden and patient census that gets me home in time for dinner is more important to me than money.
2. Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade
Traveling for locums work can be stressful, to be sure. This was particularly true during the pandemic when flights were cancelled and delayed. Food options were limited — I ate more convenience store and vending machine meals than I’d like to admit — and nearly all hotel services, like bars, restaurants, pools, and gyms, were closed.
You can’t overcome all of the burdens that come with travel, but you can certainly find ways to make your trips more tolerable. I recommend paying with a travel credit card that offers airline club access and take advantage of deals at airport bars, restaurants, and stores. Use your airline miles to upgrade to first class for extra space and leg room, a quieter cabin, and first on/first off boarding on cross-country flights. It’s worth every mile you use, in my opinion.
Always ask for a hotel room upgrade; you’d be surprised at how often you can get one. And use the perks that come with hotel loyalty programs and branded credit cards, including free nights, free food and drinks, and special club or lounge access. If you have room preferences, tell the reservation desk exactly what you want. They can accommodate for your preferences, like if you want a high or low floor, near or far from the elevator, king bed or two queens. Request several bottles of water and extra coffee supplies at the time of check-in. I also want my room to have a refrigerator, microwave, and coffee machine — I’ll ask to be moved if I’m given a room without them.
3. Pack what you can’t do without
Everybody has a few packable items that can evoke the comforts of home — they are absolutely worth the space in your suitcase. I hate hotel toiletries, so I bring my own shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. I always travel with a pair of my favorite slippers and several pouches of my best hydrating face mask. And, I don’t go anywhere without a jar of my favorite instant espresso, individual packages of Kikkoman soy sauce and Cholula hot sauce, and a container of Maldon salt flakes.
4. Eat your fruits and veggies
Eating at local restaurants is part of the joy of traveling, but portions are big (and high in calories), leftovers don’t keep well, and mealtimes can be unpredictable. It is also hard to stick with the salad section on the menu when regional delicacies are on offer. I recommend finding a grocery store as soon as you arrive for your assignment in a new town.
Hotel refrigerators are tiny, but they can usually handle pints of fresh berries, spinach in a bag, a package of raw vegetables with dip, hummus with pita chips, or fruit/vegetable smoothies in a bottle. If you can at least start the day with a healthy breakfast or add a serving of fruit or vegetables to your nighttime snack, you’ll feel less guilty about those indulgent restaurant meals.
5. Have an open mind and a curious nature
I’ve often been asked if working away from home at new institutions is stressful. While there is always a bit of anxiety when navigating a new environment, I mostly find locums work to be both interesting and educational. Because a locum provider is usually filling a much-needed gap in coverage, I’ve found that new colleagues are usually more accepting of my temporary presence than I anticipated. If you’re willing to ask, they’ll lend a hand when you’re struggling with directions, protocols, or the EMR. I like learning about patient care in different medical settings and establishing new friendships. And if you’re lucky, your new colleagues will invite you to dinner, include you in holiday parties, or join you at local events.
6. Keep to your routine
For me, one of the biggest stressors in medicine is the lack of control over my day. Even if the morning starts with a manageable patient census, there is no way to predict how many new consults, curbsides, provider phone calls, resident questions, staff interruptions, or procedural delays will influence your work hours or your stress levels.
Fortunately, though, you can develop a routine that reinforces your self-discipline, even during locums assignments. For some, this might include breakfast at the hotel, a full day of responsibilities without lunch at work, an evening exercise session at a local gym, and an on-demand movie at night. For others (like me), it means grabbing a double shot latte at a local coffee shop on the way to work, arriving early enough for computer rounds before seeing patients, stopping for lunch at midday for a much-needed mental and physical boost, and reading a new book by a local author before bed.
7. Explore when you can
Every locums assignment allows opportunities for experiencing a new landscape, sampling regional food specialties, and visiting attractions reflective of local culture. It can be hard to explore after work if days are long, so I either arrive early or stay a few days after my locums work week is done; this allows for some extended personal travel in the area. I’ve also driven — rather than flown — to reach an assignment, which resulted in a fantastic one-way road trip across the country.
I try to visit an independent bookstore in every new community. I can usually get great recommendations from the staff for nearby bars and restaurants after I’ve bought a book to read. And, I make it a rule to visit at least one regional art museum in the area — I’ve never failed to be amazed by the impressive pieces found in the most unexpected places. I’ve found museum gift shops are the best places to find cool souvenirs for the folks back home.
As long as I follow these seven tips while on assignment, I’m sure to feel like I’m in my home away from home. I’m guaranteed to have a positive locum tenens experience, every time.