News & Views

Perspectives on the locum tenens industry

Locum Tenens Definition

By Tim Hand President & CEO, Interim Physicians

What Is Locum Tenens?

Most Americans are familiar with pinch hitters in baseball, sugar substitutes as a category of sweeteners, and even fill-in administrative personnel commonly referred to as temps. But temporary medical doctors?

Since you’re here, you’re probably aware that the answer is yes. A locum tenens physician is a medical doctor, generally working through a staffing agency like Interim Physicians, who fills in for a staff physician of the same specialty for a certain time period at a hospital, clinic or medical practice. Taken from a Latin phrase meaning to hold the place of, the term can encompass physician extenders like CRNAs (certified registered nurse anesthetists) or physician assistants.

Recent industry research indicates that more than a third of U.S. physicians worked locum tenens in 2008.

Why Work as a Locum Tenens Physician?
Some physicians choose locum tenens practice as a lifestyle, while others work locum tenens assignments for different reasons at different career stages. See our physician testimonials to see what our physicians say.

For example:

  • Residents and early-stage physicians value seeing the world and gaining experience in different practice settings before deciding where to practice permanently. They can use the extra income to offset the cost of their medical education.
  • Established physicians sometimes begin working locum tenens to escape burnout or for the flexibility to pursue other career or personal interests while continuing to earn income.
  • Seasoned physicians often choose locum tenens practice as a bridge to retirement through which they can choose where and when to practice without drawing from retirement savings.

Benefits to locum tenens physicians at all career stages can include

  • Career-building experience in a wide variety of work settings and clinical cases
  • A greater sense of autonomy through creating and controlling their work schedules
  • Independence from some of the nonclinical aspects of practicing medicine
  • Greater flexibility through which to balance medical practice with family responsibilities or other priorities
  • The fulfillment of providing both relief to fellow physicians and continuing care to patients, many of whom work and live outside of major population centers.

How the Locum Tenens Industry Began
The business of sending locum tenens physicians to deliver medical services where they might not otherwise be available originated at the University of Utah in the early 1970s. They’re two physicians working through the nonprofit Health Systems Research Institute (HSRI) used a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to establish a physician staffing demonstration project. Its purpose was to make underserved communities more attractive to doctors so they would consider relocating.

The project indicated that urban or suburban physicians needed assurance of periodic breaks from rural isolation before they would consider practicing rural medicine. To facilitate this, HSRI set up a group physician practice whose members would work temporary assignments to cover other practices as needed. The services success encouraged other physicians and facilities to seek fill-in physicians. Eventually HSRI allowed one of the demonstration project’s creators to start a stand-alone service, and the first locum tenens agency was born.

Tim Hand is the Chief Executive Officer of Interim Physicians and is a noted healthcare staffing thought leader. He has led three companies to Inc. 500 status over 30 years.