December 14, 2015
3 min read

Physician Burnout is Epidemic. For Many Doctors, Locum Tenens is the Cure

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Credit:Thinkstock/Mary Ann Madsen

It’s no news that physicians are feeling burned-out these days. You know it from your own experiences, and from talking with your colleagues. Surveys of doctors confirm it:

--Medscape’s 2015 Physician Lifestyle Report found that 46 percent of physicians say they’re experiencing burnout—an increase of 6 percent since 2012.

--The Physicians Foundation Biennial Physician Survey with 20,000 responses reported 81 percent of doctors describing themselves as either overextended or at full capacity, up from 75 percent in 2012.

--Mayo Clinic researchers, working with the American Medical Association, compared data they’d collected in 2011 with new 2014 data, and found that doctors today reported higher measures of professional burnout than three years ago. More than half of doctors reported feeling emotionally exhausted and ineffective.

The numbers are disturbing, and there are a variety of reasons behind them. Certainly some contributing factors are the rapid change in the profession, making doctors feel as if the ground is constantly shifting beneath them; new EMRs and codes that mean more time on the computer and less time with patients; physician shortages meaning that doctors must work longer hours and see more patients; and hospital and medical group consolidation.

Combatting Stress

There are steps physicians can take to counteract these feelings and preserve their love of medicine. . . and their own health. Medscape’s report found that doctors who feel burnout have poorer physical health and exercise less. Making time for family, friends, outside interests, and physical fitness is essential to living a happy, healthy, and fulfilled life.

Sometimes, though, those steps aren’t enough, or work makes it impossible to institute them. In that case it may be time to re-evaluate your career and how you practice medicine.

An increasing number of doctors are finding locum tenens a way to gain control over their time again while still practicing the medicine they love. With locum tenens, doctors have the freedom and flexibility to work whenever they want, wherever they want, and for however long they want. It allows doctors to focus on patient care, with less bureaucracy and administration getting in the way. And it allows doctors to practice medicine in a way that fits their lifestyle. Not surprisingly, in the Physicians Foundation Physician Survey mentioned above, over 9 percent of the respondents stated that they planned to work locum tenens in the next one to three years, as compared with 6.4 percent in the 2012 survey.

A Solution for Doctors of any Age

Many doctors don’t realize that locum tenens can be a solution for physicians at any stage in their career.

For young doctors, locum tenens is a great way to travel and enjoy some free time after the rigors of training, but before settling down to full-time practice. Dr. Brian Harmych, a facial plastic surgeon, says that his locum tenens assignments help bridge the gap between finishing his fellowship and opening his own practice.  “In preparing to open my practice, there’s a lot of planning involved. However, the planning doesn’t require all my time, so it’s really great to work locum tenens in the meantime. I can arrange my locum assignments around important meetings that require my time.”

For mid-career physicians, locum tenens is a way to balance work life and home life. Dr. Tina Passalaris, an oncologist, recalls that when she was practicing full-time, “I was absent from my kids’ lives. I didn’t go to school plays, and it was uncanny how often I would be on call during the most important nights.” That situation changed dramatically when she began working locum tenens. “Although I’m absent 100 percent when I’m on an assignment, when I am home, I’m 100 percent home,” she says. “I participate in every aspect of my children’s lives, even if it’s as mundane as driving them to school. I would never get that when I worked full time.”

For late career doctors and those retired from full-time practice, locum tenens is a way to take control of retirement, enjoying plenty of free time but not having to hang up a stethoscope for good. Says Dr. Duane Gainsburg, a neurosurgeon: “Many productive people don’t do well when jerked into full retirement, and I have the best of both worlds: steady, satisfying work, on my terms of time and intensity, predictable income, and freedom from government/insurance company machinations and hospital political intrigues. When at home, I have the freedom to not answer the phone, the certainty that the concert or nice restaurant meal or the weekend away won’t be interrupted.”    

There’s another benefit to locum tenens, for doctors of any age. Research has linked feelings of happiness to altruism and compassion, and locum tenens will often give physicians the opportunity to provide healthcare to patients in underserved areas of the country who might not otherwise be able to receive good care. Locum tenens doctors have served on Native American reservations, in VA Hospitals, and in many rural communities. That makes it a win-win situation: A win for patients who have access to better care through locum tenens, and a win for the physicians, who take back control of their work life so that they can enjoy medicine again, while still enjoying family, friends, and a world of outside interests.