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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.

How Does The Gig Economy Translate To Physician Work?

The New Yorker recently featured a long essay about a popular new episodic work style sweeping America: the “gig economy.” The gig economy unbundles units of work previously tied to an employer or specific job. Online platforms serve as conveners to match task requests with those seeking to complete them. The New Yorker notes:

TaskRabbit, which was founded in 2008, is one of several companies that, in the past few years, have collectively helped create a novel form of business. The model goes by many names—the sharing economy; the gig economy; the on-demand, peer, or platform economy—but the companies share certain premises. They typically have ratings-based marketplaces and in-app payment systems. They give workers the chance to earn money on their own schedules, rather than through professional accession. And they find toeholds in sclerotic industries. Beyond TaskRabbit, service platforms include Thumbtack, for professional projects; Postmates, for delivery; Handy, for housework; Dogvacay, for pets; and countless others. Home-sharing services, such as Airbnb and its upmarket cousin onefinestay, supplant hotels and agencies. Ride-hailing apps—Uber, Lyft, Juno—replace taxis. Some on-demand workers are part-timers seeking survival work, akin to the comedian who waits tables on the side. For growing numbers, though, gigging is not only a living but a life. Many observers see it as something more: the future of American work.

The pluses and minuses of this kind of work are fairly straight forward. On the positive side there is speed and convenience (both on the part of the worker, and the one who needs the work done). Rapid matching of task to worker occurs in an online environment that promotes competition and favors those with high ratings and a track record of success. There is flexibility for the worker – he or she can commit to as much or as little work as is convenient, and there is the opportunity for augmenting earnings as small, paying “gigs” can be added to already existing work. Variety provides challenge and interest.

On the negative side, choosing to do gig work full-time leaves the gigger without employee benefits (such as health insurance) and an insecurity of income stream. Without a large, trusted company as the agent for work, there are fewer guarantees of service (or protections) for both the hiring entity and the worker. With freedom comes insecurity. And then there’s the question about career advancement and long term economic effects of short-term work.

It seems to me that for most people outside of the healthcare marketplace, the gig economy works best as an income supplement, not replacement. In medicine, however, full time gigging may actually have more pros than cons.

In a system where fee-for-service healthcare is rapidly being replaced with bundled payments, shared responsibility, and accountable care, it is ironic that the workforce is moving in the opposite direction. Although initially physicians were driven to become hospital employees (instead of independent practitioners), now the pendulum is swinging in the gigging direction. Primary care is embracing the “direct pay” model, and more and more physicians are joining locum tenens agencies. I myself was an early adopter of both concierge medicine and locum tenens work.

Direct primary care is efficient – patients pay only for what they need (presumably from an HSA account), and there are incredible cost savings involved for providers, not having to code and bill insurance companies for services. As I’ve said previously, using health insurance for primary care is like having car insurance for windshield wipers. Expensive overkill.

As far as locum tenens is concerned, there is no better way to prevent burn out and overwork than to reclaim control of your work schedule. Short term work assignments may be accepted or declined at the physician’s convenience. You can travel as far and wide as you have interest (there are international locums assignments available too), and gain exposure to various practice styles and locations. You set your hourly rates, and the pay is fair and transparent. No more uncompensated hours of extra work that fuel resentment towards your employer.

New companies such as Nomad Health are poised to revolutionize the gig economy for physicians. By directly linking physicians with job opportunities in an online marketplace, agency costs are avoided, saving money for hospitals and allowing for higher doctor salaries. The question remains if they will gain the user volume necessary to compete with agencies. Nomad Health will succeed if it can convene sufficient numbers of hospitals and physicians to make it worth the time on the site.

The gig economy is the natural evolution of our modern culture. As technology enables an on-demand lifestyle, work is becoming as modifiable as our media consumption.  Will chopping work up into smaller bits have a net positive or negative effect? For the companies creating the niche platforms that support the work marketplaces, the outlook seems positive. Uber, for example, is currently valued at about $28 billion. They have drawn inspiration from video games to psychologically incentivize drivers to work longer hours, contributing to their success – and perhaps downfall. By maximizing their own profits at the expense of the drivers, their gigging community is beginning to look for greener pastures at Lyft. Competition is a critical part of the gig economy.

In healthcare, I worry that a significant physician shift towards gigging could be disruptive to care continuity and result in higher costs and poorer outcomes. That being said, the alternative of physician burn out, early retirement, and flight from clinical medicine is not acceptable. I suspect that the gig economy is going to change how physicians engage with the healthcare system – and that within a decade, a large segment of the workforce will be part-timers and short-timers. This may provide a sustainable way for older physicians (or those with family or childcare demands) to continue working, which could substantially improve the physician shortage.

Gone are the days of cradle-to-grave relationships with primary care physicians – I mourn the loss of this customized, deeply personal care, but I stand ready to embrace the inevitable. I just hope that I can connect with my “short-term” patients so that my advice and treatment captures their medical complexity (and personal wishes) correctly. With all the technological tools to personalize medicine these days, it is ironic how impersonal it can be when you rarely see the same physician twice. The gig economy forces us to be perpetual strangers, and that is perhaps its greatest drawback.

When It’s More Important To Save A Lifestyle Than A Life – Jack’s Story

Even though I don’t have an outpatient practice, I like to keep in touch with some of my patients after they’ve discharged from the rehab hospital. Jack is one of my very favorite success stories.

I met Jack in a small regional hospital in rural western America. He had been admitted with sudden onset weakness, and during the intake process, accurately described his daily evening cocktail habit. Unfortunately, this led the clinicians down the wrong diagnostic pathway, presuming that alcohol withdrawal seizures were the cause of his weakness (due to a presumed “post-ictal” state).

A brain MRI was unremarkable, and so a fairly high loading dose of anti-seizure medications were started. Poor Jack happened to be very sensitive to meds, and reacted with frank psychosis. Days later he was still not in his right mind, and so a rehab consult was requested for “encephalopathy due to alcohol withdrawal.”

When I met Jack, it was clear on first glance that… [click here to read the rest of the story] or go to this link:

http://cliniciantoday.com/when-its-more-important-to-save-a-lifestyle-than-a-life/

Living La Vida Locum: 10 Tips For Being A Terrific Traveling Physician

*This post was initially published on the Barton Blog.

I have been working locum tenens assignments for over five years, and I’m enjoying it even more now than I did in the beginning. This is probably because experience has taught me how to handle the variety of challenges and unknowns that are a part of the job. Excelling in these environments leads to more assignment opportunities, meaningful professional relationships, and repeat business. If you’re interested in honing your locums skills, here’s how to do it:

1. Be prepared

Before traveling to your assignment, prepare a clipboard that will contain all the key information you will need while on assignment. This should include:

  • Your state license number, DEA number, and NPI number
  • Your login and passwords (you may receive them in advance or on day one of your assignment).
  • Common CPT and ICD-10 codes
  • A blank org chart that you can fill in with names of your supervisor and other key personnel. (E.g. Chief of Staff, Nursing supervisor, Medical Records, Admissions Coordinator, Risk Management, etc.)
  • Frequently called phone numbers (e.g. pharmacy, lab, hospitalist service, etc.)

You can do this with a tablet or smartphone if you prefer, but I find that most hospitals still prepare paper handouts for me during orientation – so an “old school” clipboard works well.

2. Dress professionally

They say you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. I find that scrubs and a white coat are clean, professional, and easy to travel with. It’s hard to know what the dress style will be at your assignment, but no one complains about a doctor in scrubs and a white coat. Scrubs are comfortable, and coats have plenty of pocket space for equipment. If you feel more comfortable in dress shirts and slacks, that’s fine too. Just remember that you may have long days and be on your feet for many hours, so plan accordingly. Footwear can make or break you!

3. Be tech savvy

It’s difficult to acclimate to new hospital documentation processes, but do your best to do so quickly and without complaining. You may not like the EMR at your assignment, but it’s not going to change, so you may as well dig in and figure out how to make it work for you. Do your EMR training in advance if possible. Plan to be able to compose your documentation on day one. Standing out as a locums often hinges on your ability to adapt to technology quickly.

4. Work hard

Although many locum assignments are short term, it’s still important to work just as hard as if it were a permanent position. Plan to carry the same census as your peers and work about the same hours. You will certainly stand out if you show that you are pulling your weight and are a valuable member of the team. Schedule assignments with facilities in advance and don’t cancel them within a 30-day window.

5. Document thoroughly

If you want to be invited back repeatedly to a facility, make sure you document thoroughly and accurately so that they can bill for your services. Provide them with CPT codes on a daily basis, and make sure you have signed all your charting. If you are off site and medical records call you to complete some documentation, do so quickly and without complaint. They will be grateful!

6. Develop staff rapport

It’s important to treat everyone with respect. Attend team meetings. Listen well. Avoid the attitude of “I don’t need to learn about this because I’m only here for a short time.” People will remember your attentiveness. Offer your cell phone number to the staff so they can get in touch with you at all times.

7. Be humble

When providers first arrive at an assignment, the natural tendency is to want to change everything to suit their own way of doing things. Resist that urge, and try to adapt to the way things are run. Every facility has its own personality and has developed a working routine. Observe it carefully before making suggestions for changing it. If you see someone doing a good job, be sure to praise them for it.

8. Be clean

Keep a tidy office space. Don’t clutter up common areas, leave old food in the staff fridge, or leave private patient information lying around. You don’t want a facility’s last memory of you to be the rotten egg salad with your name on it!

9. Have a sense of humor

When you’re the new guy/gal you’re bound to make mistakes, forget names, get lost, miss meetings, etc. Instead of being frustrated, just take it in stride and laugh at yourself and the situation. Apologize often, learn from your mistakes, and thank staff for helping you to stay on track.

10. Provide excellent patient care

In the end, the most important thing is that patients get good care. Be thorough, evidence-based, and compassionate. Engage in patient and staff education, citing medical literature as appropriate. Listen to your patients, and engage their families in their care.

If you keep these 10 tips in mind as you prepare for your next locums assignment, I have no doubt that you’ll stand out as the kind of provider everyone wants around!

Why Young Physicians Should Consider Locum Tenens: Try Before You Buy!

*This blog post was initially published on the Barton Blog.

When doctors complete their residency training, they are under a lot of pressure to land their first “real job” quickly. Student loan deferments end shortly after training, and whopping debt faces many of them. But choosing a job that is a good long-term fit can be difficult, and gaining a broader exposure to the wide variety of options is key to success. That’s why “try before you buy” can be an excellent strategy for young physicians.

Locum tenens agencies such as Barton Associates work with healthcare organizations and practice locations across the country to offer a variety of temporary assignments for physicians.

These agencies negotiate your salary and call schedule. They also arrange the logistics, covering the costs of travel and accommodations. Once the doctor and the facility agree to terms, the physician simply arrives on the required date(s) and takes on the responsibilities requested. It’s a hassle-free, minimal-commitment arrangement that pays an hourly or daily rate for work.

Locum providers are given the convenient option to receive direct deposits to their bank accounts at regular intervals. Physicians can travel as broadly as they like for assignments, and the agency credentialing team works to efficiently complete any needed paperwork for new licenses and hospital privileging.

I enjoyed “living la vida locum” for six years before I landed my dream job. That’s a long time to be living out of a suitcase, and I doubt that most of my peers would want to do it for that long of a stretch. But an amazing thing happened during those years: With each new hospital experience, I gained insight and knowledge about my specialty. By rubbing elbows and networking with a wide swath of patients and experts across the country, I became a sought-after consultant in my own right.

I experienced different ways of delivering healthcare — from critical access hospitals to bustling academic centers. I learned about best practices and creative solutions that administrators and clinical staff had discovered to improve care quality, given the limitations of Medicare rules and private insurance restrictions.

When I was hired as the Medical Director of Admissions at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane, Washington, I came armed with creative ideas and a wealth of experience to draw from. I was a highly seasoned physician who had been exposed to the widest variety of patient populations and practice styles. I knew all about the unique struggles, successes, and solutions of various rehab centers across America. I now leverage that experience to drive change at my institution, and I am virtually unfazed by new problems and challenges.

The career value of locum tenens work is extraordinary. Take the time to look around you at each assignment. Learn what works and what doesn’t work, and file it away for future reference.

Like a bumblebee cross-pollinating hospital or medical practice “flowers,” locum tenens providers have the potential to drive change like no one else. When you’ve seen it all, your insights become invaluable, and you gain the maturity to know when a full-time job is the right cultural fit. Choosing the right job, on your terms and in your time, is the key to finding happiness in healthcare.

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