Uber isn’t the only company relying on temporary contract workers— hospitals and healthcare network systems are increasingly hiring temps to cover for physician shortages and address turnover.

In their 2017 report on temporary physician staffing trends, Staff Care stated that 94% of U.S. healthcare facility managers surveyed used ‘locum tenens’ physicians in the past 12 months— up from 74% in 2012.

Locum tenens’ is a Latin term meaning “to hold a place” and refers to physicians who work shorter contract jobs instead of taking on full-time employment.

Amid a consolidating healthcare system and rising demand for contract positions, older, experienced physicians are starting to dig autonomy and enter the gig economy.

It’s an increasing trend— there are an estimated 48,000 locum tenens doctors, representing roughly 6% of all active patient care physicians.

Although 94% of healthcare facility managers cite cost as the primary drawback of locum tenens physicians, 80% say they are worth the expense. Temporary workers allow for continual treatment of patients, immediate availability and prevention of revenue loss.

These locum tenens physicians:

  • Tend to work in primary care and behavioral health— 21% work in primary care and 16% are psychiatrists or other behavioral health specialists
  • Are generally older and more experienced— 75% are 51 or older, while only 10% are 40 or younger and 65% have 21 or more years of medical experience
  • Have previously worked in permanent practice— 90% have worked in a permanent practice

Traditionally, there have been some negative associations with locum tenens physicians. The challenges inherent in temporary contract work tend to bring about concerns across the industry:

“Imagine going to a brand-new location, seeing brand-new patients you’ve never met before, operating in an unfamiliar hospital system, and interacting with other nurses and doctors you have little experience with. All of those things could make a recipe for bad outcomes.” -Dr. Anupam Jena, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School

But as demand increases for temporary workers— and the pool of qualified practitioners willing to do temp work growing with it— the stigma is reducing. 66% of health facility managers rate the skill level of locum tenens physicians as excellent or good, up from 57% in 2011.

The increase in qualified physicians may be due the fact that these doctors seem to be happy with temporary work— 79% say locum tenens is as satisfying as or more satisfying than permanent practice.

Why This Matters

The increase in locum tenens physicians raises some interesting questions for healthcare marketers.

Is regional still relevant?

Does the ‘regionally-based sale rep’ model properly engage contract physicians who are increasingly moving around?

Perhaps there are opportunities to assign a ‘digital point of contact’ for temporary physicians that can build relationships as they go from location to location.

Between-gig engagement?

Do the stints between gigs offer a new type of engagement opportunity between brands and contracted physicians?

With some locum tenens physicians taking large amounts of time off between contracts to travel, spend time with family or volunteer, are there new forms of content that can be optimized for this time between gigs?

Rapid gig-based onboarding?

Are there opportunities to develop easily digestible training for temporary physicians to help them get up to speed in new roles quicker?

Healthcare facility managers report learning equipment/procedures (43%) and credentialing issues (50%) as key drawbacks to hiring contract physicians. 68% of these managers rate training as very important when selecting a locum tenens candidate.

And it isn’t just the facility managers— locum tenens physicians cite credentialing (50%) and learning new equipment (30%) as drawbacks to contract work.

There may be opportunities to provide specific onboarding or training targeted at locum tenens physicians relocating to new areas or treating new patient populations. Perhaps pharma companies could use their knowledge of patient populations to give new-to-the-area physicians a crash course about their new patients— leveraging customized data to provide valuable insight on an assignment-to-assignment basis.

These opportunities seem to be highest for brands hoping to engage with primary care and behavioral health physicians, who represent a significant, rising portion of contract doctors.

While these opportunities might not change your communications approach for 2018, the gig-ification of healthcare is an important trend to watch. New platforms like Nomad Health are aiming to become the the “Airbnb system for medical staffing”, making it easier than ever for locum tenens physicians and facility managers to match.

With the rise of telemedicine, overall increased mobility of the workforce and massive demographic shifts taking place amongst healthcare workers, locum tenens physicians may be here to stay… just not in one place.

About the Author:

Zach Friedman