Locum Tenens Physicians Fill Need That Won’t Go Away

By Hannah O. Brown
November 28, 2017

Hiring freelancers is often profitable if they are willing to take on overnight or weekend shifts, or join a staff in a pinch to replace an unexpected schedule opening.

After working for 13 years as a physician recruiter, Lee Meyer, RN, is confident that there will always be a place for freelance physicians in medicine.

Lee Meyer

Lee Meyer

Because of a consistent shortage of physicians and the upcoming retirement of a core group of primary care doctors, Meyer says physicians who work freelance or locum tenens — who are contracted through a staffing agency — are always needed to fill holes in staffing.

“I think the need for freelance physicians will never go away,” she says. “It’s always going to be there. You are never going to be fully staffed ever.”

Meyer is a senior recruitment partner for GoHealth Urgent Care in Hartford, Connecticut. Meyer originally worked as an operating room nurse, but was pulled into a recruiting job about 13 years ago and has been responsible for staffing numerous organizations since.

Meyer says her main goal when recruiting is to find people who will eventually join her organization on a full-time basis. For physicians who are early in their careers, sometimes a chance to dip their toes into an employment situation is exactly what’s needed to recruit them long term.

“Physicians are kind of leery of signing right away without doing that freelance work,” Meyer says.

Because freelance physicians do not typically pay their own malpractice insurance, the cost of hiring freelancers can be high.

RELATED: Heart Not in Your Work? There Are Ways to Make Your Job More Fulfilling

Locum tenens physicians typically have their malpractice insurance covered by the company they contract with, but if Meyer decides to try and recruit those physicians for a long-term position, the hospital will have to pay a buyout fee to the staffing organization.

“It could be like $40,000,” Meyer says. “It could be more than that.”

But Meyer says hiring freelance and locum tenens physicians is necessary, and often profitable if those physicians are willing to fill holes in staffing, covering late night hours and weekends, or joining the staff at the last minute to replace a full-time physician who left unexpectedly.

“To make it work, there has to be a reason from both sides, and it’s really the blend of trying to find somebody that fits your culture and fills a need,” she says. “The cost of it all, I think, is a wash if you find the right fit.”

paul hoehner

Paul Hoehner

It was a combination of becoming disillusioned with his practice and a desire to study medical ethics that pushed Hoehner to withdraw from his full-time job. Though he has had to be flexible and maintain a good sense of humor in his new career, he is confident he made the right decision. 

“I have my own time, and I really don’t have to worry about all the politics and the economics of where I contract myself out to,” Hoehner says. “It’s much more free. You just go in and do your work, be a doctor and get out.”

Hoehner, who is based in Baltimore, Maryland, says he typically is contracted with a couple of dozen organizations at a time, usually on a short-term basis. He receives about six or seven calls a day from medical institutions across the country that are in need of part-time work.

“A place will have needs, and I will make an arrangement just to come back on a repeating basis,” he says. “I get to know the hospital, they get to know me, and after a while you feel like part of their staff. You are just there part time.”

Hoehner believes the quality of employees who are leaving full-time clinical practice to work locums or freelance is higher than many recruiters realize. He has personally seen the idea of freelance become more popular with physicians who are fed up with the obligations of their full-time jobs.

He says he would never go back.

“I found it very relieving. It was like a big breath of fresh air just to get out of that environment,” Hoehner says. “I can make a really good living with a lot less stress and anxiety, and an infinite amount of freedom, and it has just been wonderful.”


Hannah O. Brown is a freelance health care journalist based in Florida.

Topics: Career Planning

Physician Recruitment Success! How to Acquire Top Physician Talent
The Art of Launching an Effective Job Search