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Temporary, 'locum tenens' physicians are filling gaps left by the physician shortage

Such physicians also can be used to fill in when healthcare facilities experience turnover on their medical staffs.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

The use of temporary physicians, known as "locum tenens," to fill staffing shortages continues to be widespread, according to a new survey from national physician staffing firm Staff Care, a company of AMN Healthcare.

The 2019 Survey of Temporary Physician Staffing Trends indicates that 85% of hospitals, medical groups, and other healthcare facilities used locum tenens doctors in 2019, primarily to maintain services until permanent physicians are found, and to fill gaps caused by turnover.

Locum tenens physicians are filling openings that last from a few days to over a year while healthcare facilities seek difficult-to-find primary care physicians and specialists. They also can be used to fill in when healthcare facilities experience turnover on their medical staffs -- an event made more likely by the growing employment of physicians by hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT

As the employed physician model replaces physician practice ownership, physicians have more latitude to change jobs, creating more temporary openings and hence more demand for locum tenens physicians. Employed physicians commonly enjoy a month of vacation and continuing education time off each year, which also creates demand for locum tenens doctors.

Primary care physicians, including family physicians, general internists and pediatricians, are the most in-demand type of locum tenens doctors, according to the survey. Thirty percent of healthcare facility managers surveyed indicated they used locum tenens primary care doctors in 2019, higher than any other type of physician. However, this is down from 44% in 2016, the last time Staff Care conducted the survey.

By contrast, the use of locum tenens specialists has accelerated. For example, 21% of healthcare facilities managers reported using locum tenens surgeons in 2019, up from 11% in 2016; 17% reported using locum tenens internal medicine subspecialists, up from 9%; and 22% reported using locum tenens anesthesiologists, up from 11%.

The need for specialists is being driven by an aging population and by an aging physician workforce, with many specialists entering retirement age. In its April 2019 report, the Association of American Colleges projected a shortage of up to 122,000 physicians by 2032, including up to 55,000 primary care doctors but an even larger shortage of up to 67,000 specialists.

About 52,000 physicians worked as locum tenens in 2019, or about 6% of the active physician workforce, the data showed.

THE LARGER TREND

The 2017 Survey of Temporary Physician Staffing Trends, also released by AMN Healthcare, showed 94% of hospitals, medical groups, and other healthcare facilities used temporary physicians in 2016, a 3% increase over 2014 and a 20% increase from 2012.

In addition to the factors cited above, the agency also pointed to increased job flexibility as a reason why doctors do temporary work. They surveyed 900 physicians who work as locum tenens, with the majority of them saying they work one and three temporary assignments per year. Of those surveyed, 75% are 51 years old or older, and 43% have permanent jobs but still do temp work on the side. 89% said "freedom and flexibility" are the main benefits of this temporary work.
 

Twitter: @JELagasse

Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com