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How Locum Tenens Can Help Solve the Physician Shortage in Rural Areas

Posted on: March 16, 2016

Huckins

written by

Jess Huckins

America is facing a physician shortage. It has been for years, and by some projections, will continue to do so for the next decade. Some parts of the country have been hit harder than others, and rural areas in particular are in need of the medical support locum tenens can provide.

Despite Recent Gains, the Shortage Is Still a Problem

Healthcare employment set records in 2015. According to HealthLeaders Media, hospital job growth took off last year with 172,000 reported payroll additions — an incredible 306 percent leap from the 42,400 new hospital jobs added in 2014. In total, the healthcare sector created 474,700 jobs in 2015. Last year's explosive growth was driven simply by supply and demand.

"What you would probably find is that the increased costs and increased labor costs are closely tied to wages and benefits," Christopher DeCarlo, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, told the news site. "Ultimately what you probably have is more people coming into the healthcare sector as a result of the higher wages and net growth, particularly with the increasing number of retirees."

Even as the healthcare sector enjoys last year's employment surge, concerns over physician supply remain very real.

A report prepared by the Association of American Medical Colleges in March 2015 projected a shortfall of 46,100 to 90,400 physicians by 2025 as demand continues to outpace supply. Across the modeled scenarios, physician demand was projected to increase by 11 to 17 percent, compared with a likely increase of only 9 percent for physician supply. Projections reflected the uncertainty surrounding factors like physician retirement patterns, work-life balance expectations among younger care providers, and clinician staffing trends.

Not all areas of the country are created equal when it comes to physician supply. Hospitals & Health Networks (H&HN), citing data from the American Academy of Family Physicians, reported that rural areas — where more than 20 percent of the population lives — are home to only 10 percent of practicing physicians.

Internal medicine specialists, primary care physicians, emergency care providers, and surgeons are often in short supply at rural hospitals and clinics. Reasons for the dearth of rural providers are numerous, including country doctors retiring and younger physicians choosing to remain in urban communities after graduating from medical school.

So, how can rural areas attract the medical talent they need? We need innovative solutions, and locum tenens is one of them.

Benefits for Locums in Rural Areas

There is perhaps a no more immediate or effective solution to rural staffing shortages than locum tenens. From emergency medicine locum to surgeon locum, every hospital need can be filled quickly by a provider of doubtless ability. Lengthy searches for physicians willing to move to the countryside aren't required.

Bob Johnson, a board-certified family physician in Wisconsin, told H&HN that, in his experience, physicians who would otherwise avoid remote areas in the long term are often willing to work there on a temporary basis. A defined time frame is part of the attraction. Plus, when under contract with local hospitals, locum physicians' travel and housing expenses are covered for the duration of their stay.

"I have doctors who commute from as far as California and Florida because they love this kind of work," said Johnson. "They work for four days on and eight days off."

"Most graduates want to practice on their own terms a freedom locum tenens provides."

There is an undeniable allure to flexible assignments in new places offering variable-length contracts. H&HN cited a survey in the October 2015 issue of Family Practice News showing that 87 percent of residents were open to the idea of exploring different practice styles and locations through temporary staffing post-residency.

Study after study confirms that traditional employment doesn't appeal to the majority of today's medical graduates. Most report that they would prefer to practice on their own terms, a freedom locum tenens provides — and without the financial risks associated with private practice.

Younger physicians in search of work-life balance certainly aren't the only ones who have taken advantage of locums opportunities, Sean Ebner, a staffing specialist, told Medical Economics. While most locum physicians describe flexibility as the job’s biggest draw, many also appreciated the absence of hospital politics from their work.

"Temporary practice is an increasingly popular alternative for many doctors who are tired of the bureaucratic and other restrictions they face today," said Ebner.

The bottom line? Locums is the easy and efficient solution to rural physician shortages. Patients, providers, and facilities all benefit from having engaged and proficient doctors readily on hand.

Have you ever worked in a rural locums position? Tell us about it in the comments!

Jess Huckins
About Jess Huckins

Jess Huckins was formerly the managing editor at Barton Associates’ Peabody, MA, headquarters. She joined Barton after nearly a decade of professional editing in the publishing, marketing, and healthcare fields, and she holds a master's degree in publishing and writing. 

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