Everything you’ve always wanted to know about the Latin phrase everyone in medicine is talking about
As a physician, you have to know a lot of weird Latin words, from digitalis to cor pulmonale to latissimus dorsi. But there’s one Latin term that might throw you off: locum tenens. No, it’s not a rare blood disease, or a small muscle in your foot, or a weird medical tool they used in Ancient Rome. It translates directly as: "to hold the place of, to substitute for." And, in medicine, it’s used to describe a doctor who fills a temporary position at a hospital or practice. This is known, casually, as locuming. And in the medical community there are lots of misconceptions about how it works, who does it, and why it’s important. So, we’re going to clear things up for you.
How does it work?
Health care facilities need to hire short-term help for a variety of reasons; they might need to cover a maternity leave, or fill a gap after retirement, or cover a vacation, or require a doctor with a particular speciality to train new staff—or they might simply need to cover a staff shortage (something that is happening more and more across the country). Whatever the reason, locum doctors are vital in these situations: they come in, often on short notice, get acclimated quickly, and are able to see patients who might otherwise have to wait longer or travel further for treatment. In the end, locuming is all about closing gaps in the healthcare industry and making sure that everyone who needs to see a doctor – no matter where they are, no matter what they need – are able to.
Who does it?
If you have a medical degree and residency training, you can take on a locum tenens position. And there are opportunities available in just about every speciality you can imagine, whether you’re in emergency care, or family medicine, or anesthesiology, or orthopedics, or neonatology, or cardiothoracic surgery, or—well, you get the point.
The traditional stereotype of a locum doctor is someone in their first years of practice, unmarried, not quite ready to settle down, looking to explore their options, maybe trying to, you know, find themselves—or, sometimes, someone approaching retirement who wants to keep practicing medicine but is looking for a different experience before they hang up their stethoscope. Both of these types of locum doctors exist—but there is much more diversity in the kinds of people (and their backgrounds) who actually choose to do it, especially in the last few years as the popularity of locuming has increased. It has become, for many physicians (both young and old), a lifestyle choice.
Just like the gig economy is changing the way other industries operate, the world of medicine – and those who work within it – is beginning to adapt. While locum doctors might once have been perceived as second-tier professionals who couldn’t find a permanent position in their field, they are, today, highly-coveted, highly-respected assets for every medical employer.
Why is it important?
The freedom and flexibility that locum tenens staffing offers practices, hospitals, and other healthcare institutions is vital. The whole idea of locum tenens was born from an initiative to address doctor shortages in rural areas of the western United States. The program proved so successful that it was eventually adopted across the country—and then across all of North America (and beyond).
Locum tenens has become, in many ways, an indispensable foundational support for the entire industry. Just five years ago, three-quarters of healthcare employers reported that they used locum tenens staff. Today, that number has jumped to almost 100-percent.
Should you become a locum doctor?
Well, there’s no reason not to.
Deciding on whether to locum is like deciding what city to live in—there are lots of things to consider, and, in the end, it’s a very personal decision. While it brings a certain amount of uncertainty into your life, and probably isn’t ideal for someone who is looking to settle down (or start a family) after the whirlwind years of med school and residency, it’s a great way to test-drive a practice or work environment before committing to a permanent position. It can also give you an opportunity to travel across the country (and world!) and experience different places, people, and cultures.
Many doctors also appreciate how much it reduces the administrative side of their jobs; no hiring, no firing, no ordering supplies, no overwhelming operations tasks, etc. For physicians who want to focus on medicine, and are willing to take the risk, locuming can make for an amazing few years—and possibly even a lifelong career.
Want to learn more about locuming and see what kind of positions are available across Canada? You can visit Locumunity to get the big picture.