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Dr. Val, The Traveling Physician: Living La Vida Locums

On Assignment In Idaho

It’s been a couple of months since my last post because I’ve been traveling around the United States working as a locum tenens (in Latin, “place holder” – a more elegant name than “temp”) physician. We’ve all heard of traveling nurses, but more and more physicians are also “living la vida locums,” as it were. There are actually over 100 agencies who find/provide temporary physician coverage for hospitals who need to fill gaps in their full timers’ schedules. You can find out more about these agencies at their trade organization site, the National Association of Locum Tenens Organizations (NALTO).

For those of my peers who’ve been curious about locums work, but haven’t tried it, I thought I’d provide you with some personal thoughts and insights in the form of Q&A. Please feel free to ask your own questions in the comments section and maybe we can generate a nice, interdisciplinary discussion about locums work. I’d love to hear from others who have worked locums!

Q: Why should I work as a locum tenens physician?

If you don’t mind travel and are a fairly adaptable individual (i.e. can learn new EMR systems, staff idiosyncrasies, and navigate hospital politics without excessive angst), then you can expect to make at least 33% more in salary working as a locum (with professional liability insurance, housing and travel covered included). In addition, you have no administrative or teaching responsibilities, coding/billing hassles, or staff management issues. You’re paid an hourly rate for a minimum number of hours, with overtime negotiable. You get to see different parts of the country, and can control where you go and how much you work. (E.g. Summers in Sonoma, winters in Florida… not a bad lifestyle choice.)

Q: What kind of physicians do locums work?

In my experience, there are four kinds of people who do locums work: 1) Retirees – those who have essentially retired from full time medicine and want to keep their hand in clinically without overwhelming responsibilities and work hours 2) Salary Seekers – those who want to make 33-50% more salary and don’t care where they live to do it (they work 22 days/month or more as a locums doc) 3) Dabblers – those who want to work part time because they are busy with another job or family responsibilities and 4) Problem People – those who have personality issues and/or a legal history that make it difficult to hold down a regular job.

I don’t know the relative numbers of these 4 subtypes of physicians who do locums, but I’d guess that 20% are Retirees (Rs), about 10% are Salary Seekers (SS’s), 60% are Dabblers (D’s), and 10% are Problem People (PP’s). I’m a D, and I have met Rs, SSs, and PPs on the work circuit. I’ve also spent time talking to internists and specialists who work as locums physicians so I have an idea of what others outside my specialty are up to.

Q: What’s the difference between locums agencies?

Each locums agency has its own “corporate culture” and some are more attentive to their physicians than others. For example, when you’re traveling en route to an assignment and your flight gets cancelled on a weekend, you suddenly realize how nice it is to have a responsive agency to help with travel triage. Choosing an agency is more than just finding the one that offers the best hourly wage, it’s about how they choose and negotiate with clients (hospitals), how many staff they have to help with payroll and travel, and if the recruiters themselves are patient and attentive. All of this is primarily learned by trial and error – alas. And I think it’s probably time to create a “Yelp” destination of sorts for physicians who are interested in locums work. I wish I had had one!

That being said, what I’ve learned is that agencies vary A LOT in what they offer you and that there is usually about 25% wiggle room in hourly rate negotiation, especially for highly-sought after specialties such as Internal Medicine. In one case, a client (hospital) confirmed to me that two different locums agencies presented the same candidate to them – one was charging $90/hour more for the physician, but the physician had been quoted the same hourly rate by both agencies.

One would think that there would be an advantage to being represented by the “Platinum level” locums agency because they’d negotiate higher pay rates for you, but what happens is that they negotiate high pay rates and then don’t pass it along. In the end, the only hospitals that use those companies are ones who’ve exhausted every other avenue. So if you work for a Platinum agency, you end up with an average salary working in the most difficult situations (i.e. where no one else would go and the hospital, in an act of desperation, had to pay through the nose for you.) In addition, I’ve had a Platinum agency take 3 months to pay me, whereas another agency regularly turned my time sheet into direct pay in 7 days.

So be forewarned – the biggest, shiniest agency might not be your best bet.

Unfortunately, smaller agencies (who may be more generous with salary rates) sometimes suffer from skeleton crew staffing and fall short of being able to triage travel disasters and manage client-related problems (e.g. the hospital said you’d see 12 patients a day but when you arrive they ask you to see 24) as needed.

When it comes to a locum agency, you want someone who’s not too big, not too small, and where you can establish a relationship with a recruiter who is responsive and smart. I cannot stress this enough. Your recruiter is your lifeline while you are on the job. Recruiters don’t just spend their time finding physicians to fill positions, they are the key point of contact between you and the hospital where you work. Their role is to lobby for you, and keep the hospital accountable for your work load and work environment. If the hospital promised that you’d only need to see X number of patients/day, then your recruiter is the one to hold them to that standard. If you are concerned about patient safety because staff members are incompetent in some way, then (believe it or not) your recruiter will convey those concerns to the hospital and get the problem solved.

So overall, your locums experience depends on the corporate culture of your agency, the size and number of travel/credentialing staff they have available 24/7, and the quality of recruiter assigned to your case.

In my next post I’ll cover the following questions:

Q: Where are the most favorable locums jobs?

Q: How can I negotiate the best salary?

Q: How do locums agencies decide how to match you with a given job opportunity?

Q: What is the licensing and credentialing process like? How do I make it easier?

Survey Results Compare Hospitalist Earnings In 2011

Want to know if your hospitalist compensation package  is on par with other hospitalist groups around you?  I have previously written about the results of the  hospitalist salary compensation survey for 2010, 2011 (SHM and MGMA).  The parabolic rise appears to have no end in site.  Hospitalist demand continues to grow as witnessed by the rapid expansion of hospitalist subsidy/support payment for 2011, despite poor economic conditions.

Here’s another look at an exceptional 2011 Hospitalist Salary Survey done by the folks at Today’s Hospitalist.  If you are a hospitalist, you owe it to yourself to stay well informed about what you are worth in the market place.  As shown in the SHM/MGMA survey, hospitalist compensation Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The Happy Hospitalist*

Hospitalist Compensation Increasing With Productivity

Hospitalists in adult medicine reported an increase in median compensation from $215,000 to $220,619 in 2010, while pediatric hospitalists median compensation rose from $160,038 in 2009 to $171,617 in 2010. Though hospitalists earned more in 2010, they also reported higher productivity. The annual median adult hospitalist physician work relative value unit (wRVU) rate was 4,166, a 1.4% increase over last year.

According to the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) and Society of Hospital Medicine’s (SHM’s) State of Hospital Medicine: 2011 Report Based on 2010 Data, compensation varied by how it was structured. Adult hospitalists with 50% base salary or less reported median compensation of $288,154, while adult hospitalists with 51-70% base salary reported median compensation of $249,250. Adult hospitalists who reported 71-90% base salary earned Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Hospitalist*

Physicians Are Unhappy, But Do They Have It Worse Than The Rest Of The Country?

Many physicians, and especially primary care physicians, aren’t happy campers. Why should they be? They feel disrespected, overworked, over-managed, and underpaid. They tell me they wouldn’t advise their children to go into medicine. Some feel that physicians are singularly beset upon. “Our government acts toward the medical profession in an abusive fashion. No other industry or profession is humiliated in this way,” writes RyanJo, a frequent commentator to this blog.

I can appreciate why many physicians are upset. They’ve had a decade where the Medicare SGR formula repeatedly has threatened to cut their fees, only to have Congress enact last minute reprieves that replace the cut with a small token increase that has not kept pace with their costs. Last year, Congress actually allowed the cut to go into effect and then retroactively restored it, creating havoc in physicians’ offices during the four weeks when they weren’t being paid. Like Charlie Brown and Lucy’s football, they are told each year by their members of Congress that that “this will be the year when the SGR will finally get repealed, really, for sure, we promise, this time will be different”–only to see it pulled away at the last minute.

In the meantime, they are constantly hounded to be more accountable for the care they deliver, to fill out just another form, to document their encounters, to get Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The ACP Advocate Blog by Bob Doherty*

Medical Students Deterred From Primary Care

Primary care physicians are getting paid more, two surveys agree, while hospital employment is rising.

Internists earned $205,379 in median compensation in 2010, an increase of 4.21% over the previous year, reported the Medical Group Management Association’s (MGMA’s) Physician Compensation and Production Survey: 2011 Report Based on 2010 Data. Family practitioners (without obstetrics) reported median compensation of $189,402. Pediatric/adolescent medicine physicians earned $192,148 in median compensation, an increase of 0.39% since 2009.

Among specialists, anesthesiologists reported decreased compensation, as did gastroenterologists and radiologists. Psychiatrists, dermatologists, neurologists and general surgeons reported an increase in median compensation since 2009.

Regional data reveals primary and specialty physicians in the South reported the highest earnings at $216,170 and $404,000 respectively. Primary and specialty-care physicians in the Eastern section reported the lowest median compensation at $194,409 and $305,575. This year’s report provides data on nearly 60,000 providers.

Recruiting firm Merritt Hawkins reported that general internal medicine was one of its top two most requested searches for the sixth consecutive year. Family physicians were the firm’s most requested type of doctor, followed by internists, hospitalists, psychiatrists, and orthopedic surgeons.

Average compensation for internists Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Hospitalist*

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