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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 report

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!

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I’m often asked to do book reviews on my blog, and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book – and then if I don’t enjoy it, I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my true thoughts. Most of the reviews that I end up writing are unsolicited, but today is an unusual exception. A colleague asked me to read her book, “How To Be A Rock Star Doctor.” I got half way through when she checked in to see how things were going. I had to tell her that I didn’t agree with some of her advice to young doctors, and I worried that she would be discouraged by my honesty.

I was very pleasantly surprised to find that she welcomed the criticism and actually asked me to write my review – favorable or unfavorable as I saw fit. She is the very first author to take that position (others have thanked me for not writing a review) and I am proud of her for it.

In essence, How To Be A Rock Star Doctor, is an easy-to-read primer for young primary care physicians looking to setup their first outpatient practice. The troubling part of the book (for me) was Dr. Bernard’s approach to the empathy fatigue that can set in for overworked physicians. In her view, we must “fake it” if we’ve lost it or don’t have it.

The book contains specific advice for how to appear empathic. Smiling broadly (no matter how one is feeling internally), dressing in a white coat, and exuding confidence, are recommended because we should see our patient interactions as an acting role – we are on stage, and they are depending on us to look/act the part.

Although Dr. Bernard rightly points out that there is research to support smiling as a means to achieving a happier mood, I was left with a certain uneasiness about the idea of putting on an act for patients. Something about the potential for dishonesty didn’t feel right to me. But then again, maybe the alternative – just being oneself – can create a poor therapeutic relationship if we’re in a bad mood for some reason.

I have heard many times that doctors can be uncaring to patients. Heck, I’ve even blogged about terrible interactions that I’ve had with my peers when I was in the patient role. But what is the solution? Should doctors learn how to imitate the qualities of a compassionate physician to achieve career success, or should we go a little deeper and actually try to be caring and let the behavior flow from a place of sincerity?

On the one hand, any tips to make the doctor-patient relationship go more smoothly should be welcomed… but on the other, if patient care is just an act, then what kind of meaning do our relationships have? If we act empathic do we eventually become empathic? Maybe yes, maybe no.

One thing I’m sure of, Dr. Bernard has opened an interesting discussion about how to handle stress, burnout, and create an excellent therapeutic experience in the midst of a broken healthcare system. She is willing to take criticism, and has endeared herself to me through our email exchanges. While I may not agree with all of her strategies to optimize patient satisfaction, one thing seems clear: she is as advertised — a rock star doctor.

Check out her book and find your own path forward. :-)

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