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Words Of Wisdom For Doctors Interested In Trying Locum Tenens Work

I receive a significant amount of email in response to my blog posts about locum tenens work. Curious colleagues (from surgeons to internists and emergency medicine physicians) ask for insider insight into this “mysterious business” of being a part-time or traveling physician. I am always happy to respond individually, but suddenly realized that I should probably post these conversations on my blog so that all can benefit.

The most common question I receive is: How do the agencies compare with one another? Followed closely by: Where should I start? There is no online rating system for this industry, and so grade-focused physicians (taught to value performance ratings) feel at a loss as to where to begin. One day I hope we’ll have a locum tenens quality website, but for now  I can offer you my N=1, “case study” experience.

I’ve been doing hospital-based, locum tenens work for 6 years in the field of inpatient rehabilitation medicine. I have accepted 14 assignments through the following agencies:

CompHealth, Weatherby Healthcare, Jackson & Coker, Medical Doctor Associates, LocumTenens.com, and All Star Recruiting

I have had extensive conversations with recruiters at the following agencies, but have not ended up taking an assignment through them:

Staff Care, Delta, Onyx, Barton Associates, and Farr Health

I have summarized my experiences in this table:

Agency Name Number of Assignments Quality of Client (Hospital or Employer) Quality of Recruiter(s) Salary Provided (percent of what I would consider standard)
Comp Health 4 B,B,C,C A 80-100%
Weatherby Healthcare 3 A,B,C A 85-100%
Jackson & Coker 3 A,C,D C 85%
Medical Doctor Associates* 1 A+ A 100%
LocumTenens.com* 2 A,D B 50-100%
All Star Recruiting* 1 B- A 150%
Self-Negotiated 3 A,B,D N/A 175%

*These agencies use VMS systems.

These “data” are highly subjective, of course, but there are a few important points to be gleaned:

  1. Bad clients are hard to avoid. When I give a client a “D” rating, that means a hospital or employer that is so bad, you have concerns for your medical license or don’t feel ethically comfortable with what they are asking you to do. These are nightmare assignments and must be carefully avoided. I describe my experience with one of the “D’s” here. Big name agencies (and even I on my own) can be duped into accepting bad apple clients. Since it’s hard to know which ones are truly bad (even after a phone interview), I now only commit to a short (about 2 week) initial assignment and then extend once I feel comfortable with the match.
  2. There are good recruiters everywhere. Although the larger agencies pride themselves in outstanding customer service, the truth is that I have had great relationships with most recruiters at most agencies. From a physician perspective, the “customer experience” is fairly uniform.
  3. Vendor Management Systems (VMS) don’t create the race to the bottom I expected. The largest agencies are strongly against automated physician-client matching software (which is essentially what VMS does) and argue that they destroy the customer service experience for both hospitals and physicians. Although I am philosophically opposed to being listed on a hospital purchase order along with IV tubing and non-latex gloves, the truth is that such matching has brought me higher-paying assignments at good quality hospitals that do not hire locum tenens physicians outside of a VMS system. I see no reason to exclude agencies who use VMS, though there is a risk of being in a larger competitive pool for each individual assignment. This means that you may waste some time before being placed, but in the end if the pay is $150% of base, then its probably worth it.
  4. Boutique is not better in the locum tenens world. Unless you are in a specialty that is so small you require recruiters who can perform highly customized job matches, boutique agencies can be home to some of the most depressing assignments in America. Desperate clients who have not had success in filling positions through the (highly motivated) big agencies will turn to boutique ones, hoping that their sheer force of personality will cover for the flaws that make their hospital’s hiring difficult. I have learned to steer clear of the boutique charm offensive.
  5. You can make a higher salary if you find your own job. Agencies provide significant value to physicians. They do the hard work of locating and updating job assignments, assisting with credentialing and licensing paperwork, negotiating salary and overtime, providing professional liability insurance, and handling logistics (travel/lodging booking and re-booking).  That being said, if you’re willing to do all that yourself, you can negotiate a much higher salary if you work directly with hospital HR.
  6. Will “gig economics” eventually bypass the current agency model? Online job-matching sites will probably take a big chunk of market share, but won’t “own” the space because they don’t provide the logistical, legal, and credentialing services that physicians enjoy from agencies.  However, given that agency fees add about 40% costs to physician hiring, there is strong motivation to find alternative hiring strategies, and I suspect that Millennial physicians won’t mind doing extra work for higher pay. Websites like Nomad Health are suffering from limited user sign up (both on the client and worker side), but will likely reach a tipping point when a VC firm provides the marketing capital to raise sufficient awareness of the new hiring marketplace that bypasses recruiters and saves hospitals money. Until then, dipping your toes into the healthcare gig economy is easiest to do through an agency – and the big ones (CompHealth and their subsidiary Weatherby Healthcare have about 50% of the market share, followed by Jackson & Coker as the next largest) provide the largest number of options.

The bottom line is that part-time and short term physician assignments can prevent physician burnout and overwork. The pay is generally very good, and agencies can make the experience as painless as possible. Those who desire higher hourly rates can achieve them if they’re willing to take on more responsibility for paperwork and logistics.  Whether this “do it yourself” movement is enhanced by online marketplaces, or good old fashioned cold-calling to find work – physicians hold the cards in this high demand sector. I suspect that more of us will be ready to play our cards in the locum tenens space in the upcoming years, because full time medical work (at the current pace) is, quite ironically, simply not healthy.

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