As I travel frequently, I am often asked by a fellow passenger, “What do you do for a living?” It’s a simple enough question, but one that is sometimes difficult for me to define. Most often, I’ll simply say, “I’m a doctor,” and most of the time, that answer suffices. Sometimes they’ll ask what my specialty is, and when I say that I’m an anesthesiologist, there is a bit of confusion because many do not understand the nature of our job. After all, most people sleep through the most important part of our job! If they ask where I practice, then things get a bit tricky. I tell them, “I’m a locum tenens physician.” “Loco what?” is the usual response. Even some fellow physicians do not really understand how the locum tenens process works.
In brief, locum tenens is Latin for “placeholder.” In other words, a temporary worker for physicians. While many are familiar with nurses who are travelers, the idea that physicians can work in the same manner is novel for many, despite the fact that it has been an option for nearly 40 years.
So, what draws someone to this type of practice? Some of the answers are obvious – more flexibility in scheduling, less bureaucratic hassles with administrations, more free time with family and of course, the opportunity to travel. Some will take an occasional locum tenens assignment to check out a new area or job or to make some extra money. Those of us who do it full time are in the minority, but it is a growing minority.
For the past 11 years, I have been practicing as a locum tenens physician full time. During that time, I have traveled all over the United States – from Alaska to Maine, the midwest, southwest and in my own neck of the woods – the pacific northwest. My assignments have taken me to large referral centers and to hospitals with fewer than 30 beds. In my spare time on assignment, I have learned how a lobster picker works, how to make tamales, and how to shoot (from a Registered Nurse who was also a deputy sheriff). As you might imagine, going to new places, new states, and new faces presents challenges along the way, but it also offers a lot of adventure– I would not change a thing.
One of the more rewarding aspects of doing locum tenens is the ability to go on medical missions. To be honest, you can go on medical missions if you are in a permanent job, but the locum’s lifestyle offers many more chances to do so. For the past eight years, I have traveled to Ecuador, Zimbabwe, Congo, and most recently, Madagascar – with the Africa Mercy Hospital Ship, associated with the Mercy Ships Foundation. Going on a medical mission is a great way to reinvigorate your love of medicine and offer help in the balance. In my opinion, there is no better way to reduce the burnout that is so prevalent in our field today.