Exploring the State of Locum Tenens: 6 key takeaways

Illustration - State of Locum Tenens report

Locum tenens staffing is a vital aspect of the healthcare landscape. Locum tenens providers step in to fill gaps in coverage and ensure patients continue to receive the care they need. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the healthcare system hard, increasing demand for healthcare services and healthcare providers, while at the same time causing many to leave the profession. That’s just one reason the annual CHG Healthcare State of Locum Tenens Report found that demand for locum tenens has reached historic highs.

Illustration - # of physicians working locums

1. More physicians are choosing to work locum tenens

An increasing number of physicians are turning to locums — since 2015, there has been an 88% increase in physicians working locums, according to CHG locum tenens awareness research combined with data from the AMA Masterfile of Active Physicians.

“Whether it’s taking on more locums shifts in addition to a permanent job or just working as many locums assignments as they can, some doctors are taking advantage of the huge need that is out there for physicians right now,” explains Luke Woodyard, president of Weatherby Healthcare.

Overall, about 7% of physicians are working locums, or roughly 50,000 physicians.

A strong majority of locums physicians are male, with women only representing 19% of the pool. According to the AAMC Active Physicians by Sex and Specialty report, 36.3% of physicians overall are women.

Graph - stage of career physicians start locum tenens

2. Most physicians start working locum tenens in the first 10 years of their career

Locums physicians tend to be in their mid to late career. About 83% of locums physicians are in that career stage, although most physicians with locums experience had their first assignment within the first 10 years of their career.

Prior to 2020, more locums physicians worked part time than full time. However, 2021 saw a shift to more physicians working locum tenens full time, and that trend continued into 2022. 

3. Compensation motivates physicians to choose locum tenens

Physicians turn to locum tenens work for a wide variety of reasons. The top reasons are to supplement their core income or to work while looking for a permanent position. Other common reasons include personal life transitions, to control their schedule, or to look for a practice that works best for them.

Flexibility and work/life balance can be significant factors for locums physicians. “Locums lets physicians bend their work around their life, in contrast to the years they spent bending their lives to fit around their education, training, and careers,” says Scott Beck, CEO of CHG Healthcare.

Most locums physicians work assignments close to home or in nearby cities or states. Only 19% work nationally, and a mere 2% work internationally.

Graph - location of locum tenens assignments

Overall, a solid majority (82%) of physicians who’ve worked locums positions say the experience was positive. Another 12% are neutral on the experience. Of the physicians who had a positive locum tenens experience, the reasons are: more competitive compensation (38%), the ability to control their schedule (34%), the ability to travel and see new locations (31%), keeping their medical skills current, and working locum tenens during a career gap or transition (both 29%).

Graph - reasons for hiring locum tenens

4. Continuity of care drives healthcare facilities and leaders to use locum tenens

Healthcare organizations have myriad reasons for using locum tenens physicians. The top reason, at 83%, is to provide coverage until a permanent candidate is found. Other significant reasons include filling in for someone who has left the organization and vacation coverage.

Two factors saw dramatic increases in the COVID-19 era. Meeting rising patient demand came in at 42% in 2022, up from 30% in 2020. Supplementing staff during peak periods was cited by 41% of respondents, but it only accounted for 28% in 2020.

Illustration - benefits of hiring locum tenens

“We would love to be 100% employed with permanent staff, but it’s just not possible in the current state. We are growing faster than we can bring on new people, so locums support allows us to keep up with that growth while still offering great patient care,” says Allison Spindle, MPS director of provider recruitment for Inova.

With this continuing demand for locum tenens staff, 32% of healthcare organizations plan to increase the use of locums physicians in the upcoming year, while 50% plan to continue using them at the same rate.

Organizations are focused on meeting patient demand, so it’s no surprise that the ability to provide continual treatment of patients was the top benefit of hiring locum tenens physicians for healthcare organizations. The second-highest benefit was reducing staff burnout — this factor saw a jump from 30% in 2020 to 56% in 2020.

When it comes to burnout, organizations need to find actual ways to address the problem, according to Melinda Giese, senior vice president of CHG Healthcare. “This means doing more than providing free lunches or meditation spaces. They need to look at work environment, hours, and other issues that directly impact physician well-being.”

Cost is the biggest drawback to locums for healthcare organizations, followed by concern about patient care and job performance and locums providers’ unfamiliarity with the department and its policies.

Illustration - Drawbacks to hiring locum tenens

5. Hospital recruiters and leaders mostly have a positive impression of locum tenens

Graph - overall perception of LT physicians

Forty-four percent of recruiters and hospital leaders have a somewhat positive or very positive impression of the locums physicians who have worked in their organizations. An additional 44% say their impressions are neutral. Only 12% say they have a negative impression, and none indicated a very negative impression.

6. Primary care doctors top the list of most-utilized locum tenens

Illustration - most utilized locum specialties

The list of most in-demand specialties has seen little change over the year. The top five include primary care physicians, sub-specialties, cardiology/pulmonology, surgical specialties, and oncology. This year marks the first year oncology appears in the top five, edging out psychiatry.

When it comes to demand for locum tenens physicians, California tops the list among all states for the total number of locums openings, followed by Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Minnesota, according to research from Definitive Healthcare. However, when looking at open locums positions per capita, Connecticut tops the list, followed by Florida, Texas, Utah, and Rhode Island.

As the healthcare industry continues to face a clinician shortage, locum tenens physicians will play an increasingly vital role in maintaining continuity of patient care, alleviating provider burnout and supporting facilities’ profitability.

To learn more, access the full State of Locum Tenens Report here.

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