CHICAGO (NewsNation) — In the world of medicine, part-time work was usually reserved for doctors transitioning into retirement, but amid an uptick in physician burnout rates, many are opting to make full-time careers out of temporary jobs. But it doesn’t come without challenges, especially for hospitals and physicians who rely on them.
Medical professionals have been overwhelmed with work since the start of the pandemic; it’s led to overloaded patient rosters and burnt-out nurses and doctors.
According to the American Medical Association, burnout rates exploded over the last several years, with a 25% spike in the number of physicians who reported at least one burnout symptom. That combined with shrinking pay has many health care professionals looking to make a change.
Nearly a quarter of all physicians in the U.S. said they planned to quit in the next two years, according to a recent study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, However, for those still looking to practice medicine there may be another way: gig work.
So, like traveling nurses, many doctors are transitioning into temporary physicians-for-hire, tapping into a demand for their services, especially as hospitals face staffing shortages across the nation.
Nearly 50,000 doctors in the U.S. are taking locum tenens assignments in 2022, according to CHG Healthcare, a medical staffing company. That’s nearly 7% of all U.S. physicians, excluding foreign medical school graduates, and a nearly 90% spike from 2015.
U.S. primary care doctors are the most sought-after, according to CHG Healthcare data.
Dr. Ripal Patel, an emergency physician and an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine, said there are many reasons why doctors are making the shift to temporary work.
“Often you feel like a factory worker and you’re at the mercy of these administrators,” Patel said.
More doctors are considering locum tenens, Latin for “placeholder,” and the term the health care industry uses to describe temporary-gig physicians.
“Locums tenens is basically an option where individuals fill in,” Patel said. “A specialist was away from their practice, somebody’s on maternity leave or is going to be on vacation, so you needed a placeholder doctor to be there to fill in in that capacity.”
Yet, many medical professionals are concerned that greater reliance on temporary doctors could be disruptive to patients, especially in fields such as oncology or obstetrics, the Wall Street Journal reported.
“On Friday, you got Dr. Jones, but on Saturday, you get the locum. Maybe they didn’t get a good sign out from Dr. Jones. Maybe they have to start from scratch because they aren’t really clear on what’s going on,” Dr. Gail Gazelle, a physician coach and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, explained to the WSJ.
Temporary positions require doctors to fulfill credentials and licensing requirements for every state or facility they practice in. Oftentimes, they get malpractice coverage through the temp agencies they work with, but the risk of being sued can vary greatly from state to state.
It also requires getting up to speed in a new workplace quickly, Dr. Miechia Eso, a vascular surgeon who has been a full-time locum tenens physician for nearly a decade, told the WSJ.
“In many instances, you may be the only one out of the facility,” she said. “That requires deep knowledge and the flexibility of being able to quickly adapt.”
Meanwhile, some physicians who’ve switched to temporary work have said patients often fare better with a doctor who can solely focus on providing care, versus a doctor who is other duties including meetings and administrative work that come with a full-time hospital job.