Let’s face it. The term “locum tenens” is a strange one. When I tell people what I do for a living, they think I’m work for “loco tenants” or “local tremors” company. If you go to any locum tenens agency’s web page, including BartonAssociates.com, you will learn that the term locum tenens is a Latin phrase meaning “holding one’s place.” That’s fine, but where did the term come from?
The term locum tenens was first used to reference temporary staffing relief in medieval times when the Catholic Church would provide clergy to parishes where no priests were available. It makes sense that the church would use a Latin term, considering church services used to be exclusively in that language. It’s not clear whether locum tenens recruiters inundated parishes with messenger pigeons asking if they have any staffing gaps. The term is still used in the church to reference clergy members who hold vacant seats until a new leader can be named. For example, Kyrillos Makarios resigned as Patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate, Maximos Sedfaoui served as a locum tenens until Makarios eventually died.
Based on extensive Google searching, the term locum tenens wasn’t officially used to reference temporary doctors until the 1970s, when the first locum tenens staffing agencies formed following a demonstration project conducted at the University of Utah, which showed the benefits associated with using temporary doctors to replace rural physicians. Although the term may have been coined in the 1970s, doctors had been living the locum lifestyle long before that. For example, Bing Crosby played a locum tenens doctor in the 1947 film, “Welcome Stranger“, but the term is not used in the film. When Bing shows up in a small Maine town to fill in for an ornery physician, the old doctor is appalled that his replacement never stays in a position for more than a few months. He calls Bing a hobo, not a locum. It’s not clear why the commercial locum tenens founders chose the term. Perhaps they wanted to draw on the history of Latin in medical terminology or maybe they like confusing family members. In any event, locum tenens is the term we have. On the bright side, if the physician shortage ends up being as bad as predicted, many more people will learn the term and about the value of locum tenens physicians and nurse practitioners.