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Locum Leaders' Locum Tenens Salary Guide: 3 Important Considerations

Are you considering working a locum tenens assignment — or even deciding whether a series of locums assignments could be a viable career option? Either way, you are probably interested in knowing what to expect in a locum tenens salary package.

First, it's important to understand that locum tenens salary dynamics have changed considerably over the several decades since this practice type was introduced into the U.S. healthcare system. Now, more than in the past, locum physicians can expect to earn roughly the same rate of pay as full-time, permanent physicians. 

Often, the employer will be paying more than the standard salary, but a portion of that is collected by the locum tenens staffing agency, which, in return, saves the employer the considerable cost of hiring a new physician, and provides the locum tenens worker with a variety of benefits that include malpractice insurance, licensing assistance, and a reliable paycheck. 

Locum jobs that involve relocation or travel should also include reimbursements for housing and travel expenses.

With all of this in mind, locum tenens salaries can differ quite a bit based on these three primary factors:

3 variables that affect your locum tenens salary

1. Medical specialty 

As we all know, physicians working in different medical specialties will earn different salaries, and this holds just as true for locum tenens physicians as for any other.

So how do those specialty salaries break down? According to the 2017 Medscape Physician Compensation Report — gleaned from a survey of more than 19,200 physicians across 27 specialties — primary care physicians make, on average, a salary of $217,000 per year, while specialist physicians averaged $316,000.

The same report tells us that the top three highest-earning physician specialties are orthopedists at $489,000 per year, plastic surgeons at $440,000, and cardiologists at $410,000. The lowest earners are pediatricians ($202,000), family physicians ($209,000), and endocrinologists($220,000).

"Pediatricians, oncologists and cardiologists’ incomes was virtually unchanged this year [from 2016-2017], while all other survey respondents reported an increase,” the report said. 

Physician assistants and advanced practice nurses, who are also eligible for locum assignments, can also expect to earn equitable salaries to their permanent counterparts.

2. Facility type 

As with any physician or advanced practitioner job, locum tenens or not, your salary will also vary depending on the type of facility in which you're working. You can expect small-town clinics to offer different locum tenens salary packages than cutting-edge university medical centers, for example.

At the same time, experience plays a big role in locum tenens salary, no matter what the facility type. 

An employer in a rural community may pay more for a specialist with premium levels of experience, for instance, while that same highly experienced specialist may have to accept a lower level of compensation in a larger facility where he or she is just one among many.

3. Location

In rural areas, locum tenens are often more in demand because physicians are scarcer. By way of comparison, physicians are relatively abundant in cities and urban areas — say, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and the nation's major population centers. 

In general, this means that locum salary rates are much more competitive in a city, where there are many more applicants competing for each job. In rural areas, however, locum salary rates may be quite a bit higher simply because the need is much greater.

This is hardly an iron-clad rule, though, and tends to lose its bearing on situations involving highly skilled or experienced professionals.

Here, then, a choice is necessary. 

Which is more important to you when choosing a locum tenens location: living in a highly desirable area, or earning the maximum locum tenens salary rate available given your specialty and experience level? 

If you're a seasoned physician decades into your career, you may choose the former; if you're a young physician looking to pay down medical school debt, it's more likely to be the latter.

"When deciding which opportunities to consider, be sure to let your recruiter know if earning the highest possible income is more important than geography," advises the National Association of Locum Tenens Organizations® (NALTO).

"Pay rates do not vary all that much from agency to agency, but they can be significantly higher in remote locations where the need for physicians is greatest," the report continues.

"In areas where demand is high and doctors are in short supply, it is not uncommon for locum tenens practitioners to earn attractive rates and pick up extra shifts and added call to boost income. Some locum tenens agencies also offer bonuses to physicians who are willing to practice in one location for an extended period of time. A hospital or practice that needs physician coverage for several months usually prefers to have one practitioner for the entire time rather than several who each stay for only a few weeks."

While freelance physicians can sometimes negotiate higher locum tenens salary rates than those who sign on with an agency — Dr. Kevin Pho (a.k.a. KevinMD) reported in Medscape earning as much as 33 percent over a standard physician salary this way. 

Yet other experts have emphasized the importance of maintaining reasonable expectations when negotiating locum tenens salary rates. Most locum agencies, such as Locum Leaders, offer a fixed salary in addition to other benefits and guarantees, such as:

• Malpractice insurance coverage

• Travel arrangements

• Housing and travel reimbursements

To learn more about the specific locum tenens benefits available to you from Locum Leaders, connect with a recruiter today.

Ensuring a Fair Locum Tenens Salary & Prompt Payment: The Benefits of Working with an Established Locum Staffing Company

The fact that locum tenens salaries tend to outpace standard physician salaries is just one of the benefits of locum tenens employment. 

"If you don’t mind travel and are a fairly adaptable individual (i.e. can learn new EMR systems, staff idiosyncrasies, and navigate hospital politics without excessive angst), then you can expect to make at least 33% more in salary working as a locum (with professional liability insurance, housing and travel covered included)," as Dr. Pho puts it in his Medscape article.

"In addition, you have no administrative or teaching responsibilities, coding/billing hassles, or staff management issues," Dr. Pho adds. "You’re paid an hourly rate for a minimum number of hours, with overtime negotiable. You get to see different parts of the country, and can control where you go and how much you work. (e.g., summers in Sonoma, winters in Florida … not a bad lifestyle choice.)"

In his classic article "A Physician's Guide to Locum Tenens," Dr. William T. Cushing stresses the importance of working with a locum tenens staffing company that's reliable, attentive and considerate to make sure that you receive your locum salary in a timely and hassle-free manner.

Calling clearly defined payment terms an "important factor in locum tenens work," Dr. Cushing describes a payment ordeal he underwent with an unreliable locums partner that took him two years to resolve.

"Get it in ink," he advises, regarding locum salary rates and payment schedules, as well as all other aspects of your work agreement. "Travel arrangements and expenses should also be stipulated in the agreement," as should lodging and malpractice insurance.

All of which you can expect when you take an assignment with a reliable locums partner like Locum Leaders. And when you do partner with a reliable company, you're likely to find locum tenens employment assignment to be, in the words of Dr. Janice Boughton, "a truly great option."

Locum tenens work "allows me to know that I will be able to stay busy in my field and make enough money to support my family and to have breathing space to do other important things," she adds. 

Combined with flexible assignment options and a locum tenens salary that's more than competitive with any other part-time or full-time work, locums employment is an appealing option indeed.

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