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The Role of Locum Tenens During the COVID-19 Pandemic

A reflection on how locum tenens clinicians demonstrated their value during a time of crisis and beyond

At the beginning of the pandemic, healthcare organizations across the country had the daunting task of bracing their emergency departments to deal with an influx of COVID-19 patients. Predicting exactly how hard they would be hit was difficult, but they knew they had to be prepared for the worst possible scenario.

For this reason, many organizations strategically turned to locum tenens staffing solutions so they would have a bench of clinicians ready should they need to utilize them, either to serve a high volume of COVID-19 patients or needing to relieve their existing staff.

The concept of locum tenens began in the 1970s, primarily to fill gaps in service left by clinicians who are traveling, retiring or leaving an organization altogether. Over time, as organizations began utilizing locum tenens physicians and healthcare advanced practitioners for different purposes, the definition expanded and evolved. Now, in the face of an unprecedented crisis, the definition of locum tenens is expanding and evolving yet again.

COVID-19 has allowed locum tenens clinicians to demonstrate that they, like on-staff clinicians, are heroes, ready to jump in and serve at a moment’s notice, whenever and wherever they are needed most. For example, early on during a peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, LocumTenens.com reported 63% of the physicians it placed in New York were not residents of the state. Many of these providers filled in where needed.

Although some healthcare organizations did not require the additional support of locum tenens clinicians to handle their COVID-19 patients, they are thankful that this option to readily fill positions is available to them, should the need arise. Numerous organizations and practices have already utilized locum tenens support and are incredibly grateful for the additional assistance that has helped save countless lives.

As we move beyond the COVID-19 crisis, it is important to consider how locum tenens physicians and advanced practitioners can be utilized strategically not only in times of an emergency, but also as a foundational part of the healthcare model. Many organizations have found them invaluable in providing uninterrupted critical services in times of shortage, not just during the pandemic. For years, locum tenens providers have been crucial in helping healthcare executives across the country quickly expand service lines and open new ones. Hiring and onboarding full-time, permanent clinicians can be time consuming and costly; locum tenens clinicians typically have a wealth of experience in quickly adapting to new environments and are not only comparable, but frequently more cost-effective than additional full-time staff.

How can we redefine locum tenens?

 

Clinician burnout is not a new problem, but in the aftermath of COVID-19, it is likely to be a much bigger issue than it was previously. Onboarding locum tenens practitioners as reinforcements to permanent staff who may be suffering from anxiety, stress and burnout post-pandemic can help bring much needed relief to existing full-time workforce.

The willingness of locum tenens clinicians to travel and cross geographic borders during the crisis has highlighted another issue for consideration as we look toward the future of healthcare post-pandemic: license portability, with several states relaxing licensing for healthcare providers to practice across state lines to support hospitals. These types of regulatory changes are critical now and if made permanent, could also help with the long-term issues of physician shortage and access to care.

Finally, it is time we recognize the integral role of locum tenens and include this sector in more productive conversations as part of our short and long-term strategies to bolster the scarce clinician workforce resources.

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