Should Your Hospital Hire Locum Tenens Physicians?

It is a vexing question that most hospitals and medical practices face eventually: when you have an expected or unexpected physician vacancy, do you bring in a temporary substitute? Locum tenens is a huge business – rarely a day goes by that I don’t get a phone call or an email from a locum tenens company asking if I’d be willing to cover a pulmonary practice for a few weeks or do a few ICU shifts in some community in the Midwest.

There are a lot of very legitimate reasons why bringing in a locum tenens physician makes sense. The local physician could be out on an extended medical leave or maternity leave. A doctor in the National Guard could be called up for active duty. Maybe there was an unexpected death or retirement and the replacement physician can’t start for a few months. There could be unexpected physician resignations or an unexpected growth in clinical demand and hiring just can’t keep up.

In nursing, we call those temporary workers “travelers”. In business, they are often called “temporaries”. When it comes to physicians, we call them “locum tenens”. The word comes from Latin meaning “placeholder”. I’ve seen these employees work both ways. For example, when I was the treasurer of our Department of Internal Medicine, we brought in a temporary administrative director to oversee our revenue cycle department and she brought in a wealth of knowledge and experience – we were able to capitalize on her objective analysis of our operations as an outsider looking in so that we were able to greatly improve our billing and collection efficiency. On the other hand, I have seen hospitals bring in temporary physicians who did not perform clinically as expected and resulted in a deterioration in the quality of care in those hospitals.

Many hospital medical directors and hospital credentials committees remember the bad experiences and forget about the good experiences and thus try to avoid locum tenens doctors. This month, in JAMA, we finally have some objective data to help us to decide whether bringing in locum tenens physicians is safe. In an article from Harvard, investigators looked at 1.8 million Medicare admissions covered by an internist between 2009-2014. They found that 2.1% of the admissions were covered entirely by a locum tenens physician. In addition, 9.3% of the non-locum tenens primary admitting physicians were covered by a locum tenens physician at some point during the hospitalizations.

The key finding was that there was no difference in 30-day mortality between the locum tenens physicians (8.83%) and the non-locum tenens physicians (8.70%). There were some interesting differences, however. Patients treated by locum tenens physicians had higher costs of hospitalization ($1,836 versus $1,712), longer length of stays (5.64 days versus 5.21 days), and lower readmission rates (22.80% versus 23.83%) compared to patients treated by non-locum tenens physicians. In summary:

  • No difference in mortality
  • Longer length of stay
  • Higher cost of hospitalization
  • Lower readmission rates

There were also some interesting demographic differences. Locum tenens physicians were more common in Southern and Western United States. They were also more common in smaller rural and suburban hospitals (as opposed to urban hospitals) and in public hospitals (as opposed to private hospitals).

A recent survey of healthcare organizations indicated that 85% use locums tenens at some time. Although you might think that locums tenens primarily attracts younger, more mobile physicians, it turns out that 75% of locum tenens physicians are over age 51, that is, toward the end rather than at the beginning of their careers. When considering hiring a locum tenens physician in your hospital, it is important to understand the doctor’s motivation to do locum tenens work – there are “good” reasons and there are “bad” reasons:

The Good Reasons For Being Locum Tenens:

  1. Desire to visit different parts of the United States or to visit family members residing in different parts of the country.
  2. Desire to try out a hospital practice or a part of the country before committing permanently (like dating before committing to marriage).
  3. Wanting to scale back clinical practice as a bridge to retirement.
  4. Flexibility in scheduling and ability to have extended time off during the year.
  5. Preferred lifestyle.
  6. Enrichment of professional experiences by practicing in multiple locations to improve clinical abilities.
  7. Better pay.

The Not So Good Reasons For Being Locum Tenens:

  1. The physician does not get along with other people and cannot maintain lasting relationships.
  2. The physician has substandard practice and cannot hold a job for a long period of time.
  3. The physician does not want to be invested in the long-term success of an organization.
  4. Better pay (this can be either a good reason or a bad reason, depending on the circumstances.
  5. The physician has become burned out and is just trying to stay employed.

When considering a locum tenens physician, the hospital will most often be dealing with a locum tenens company as an intermediary. It is important that the hospital stick with its usual credentialing process to vet the physicians – there can be a tendency to delegate some of the credentialing steps to the locum tenens company with the assumption that they are as thorough or have as high of standards as the hospital’s credentials committee. However, that is not necessarily the case. The locum tenens company is selling you a product, namely the doctors on their list and they will be motivated by trying to make a sale rather than by trying to improve your hospital’s quality of care. There is also the belief that because the locum tenens physician will only be there a short while, that the hospital can live with lower standards than they would require for a regular permanent physician. However, remember, it is always harder to get someone off of the medical staff than to put them on in the first place and if that physician decides to stay in the area and now has regular medical staff privileges, he/she could decide to continue to practice at the hospital long-term. Also, a bad doctor can do a lot of damage to your hospital in a short period of time. There is also the issue of cost – locum tenens physicians will usually be more expensive than a regular, permanent physician.

Some large physician groups will have an internal locum tenens group in order to fill temporary vacancies at the various practice locations that they have. Although you can be a bit more sure of what you are getting in this circumstance (since these locum tenens physicians are actually employed by the physician group), they still require the regular vetting you use for any other new physician, including contacting references from past locations where they have practiced.

The use of locum tenens physicians is becoming more and more common. Most hospitals in the U.S. will be using at least some locum tenens physicians in the next year. The new study indicates that the overall quality of care by locum tenens physicians is good. However, the hospital still need to be sure that the individual locum tenens physician’s motivations for his/her career choice will mesh with the hospital’s culture and goals.

December 7, 2017