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How the Pandemic Has Changed Locum Tenens Jobs

By Jennifer Larson, contributor

As the result of the coronavirus pandemic, the healthcare landscape is different today than it was a year ago. Some changes may be temporary, but others could be long-term. Where does the locum tenens industry stand?

History of a pandemic, including a rebound

The locum tenens industry was booming in 2019. A report released early in 2020 found that 85 percent of hospitals, medical groups, and other healthcare organizations used locum tenens physicians in 2019. 

According to the report, about 52,000 physicians worked in a locums tenens role, accounting for 6 percent of practicing physicians. Many of them temporarily filled recently vacated positions while the healthcare organizations searched for permanent replacements. Primary care physicians were in particular demand. 

Plus, the demand for nurse practitioners and physician assistants working in locum tenens jobs was up. 

But then the pandemic arrived. By March 2020, the coronavirus was spreading in the United States, and people were asked to stay in their homes and postpone visits to the doctor.

A few hot spot areas, notably New York City, were hit with a surge in cases, and needed to recruit additional staff. But elsewhere, many hospitals were hit with sharp decreases in patient volumes, as they scaled back or eliminated elective surgeries and procedures. Medical practices were also hard hit. Revenues declined, as patients sheltered in place. 

In general, U.S. staffing revenue declined after the pandemic began, especially in the healthcare sector. A report recently issued by Staffing Industry Analysts predicted a decrease in most areas compared with 2019. While travel nursing revenues increased during the pandemic, the report predicted that locum tenens staffing could decline this year by 15 percent

In the first few months of the pandemic, some physicians and other providers who relied on locum tenens work noticed a drop in the open positions available to them, as the demand for services declined. In some cases, employers began to rely more on pro re nata or PRN (as needed) workers from among their own staff, rather than hiring temporary staff, notes Katie Jarvis, MD, a family medicine specialist who works as a hospitalist in Texas.

But in recent weeks, patients have started returning to hospitals and doctors’ offices, needing care for chronic conditions and surgeries that had been delayed. As a result, the need for healthcare workers has seen a rebound. 

“We’re about to have very full hospitals to catch up with that backlog,” Jarvis predicts. 

That could be good for people looking for locums tenens jobs in the next few months, although some uncertainty remains.

What might a second wave of COVID-19 look like? Discussions are already underway about how to handle a resurgence in cases, based on what’s been learned about the coronavirus and how it spread in hot spots like New York, notes Jean Moore, DrPH, director of the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the School of Public Health at the University at Albany, SUNY. 

“People are talking about how we will do things differently the next time around,” she says.

How healthcare is evolving

Whatever the second wave looks like, most people agree that one significant trend brought on COVID-19 is likely to be permanent: the expansion of telemedicine. 

As the pandemic ramped up, so did the use of telemedicine to provide care to patients. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a report in late July that described a dramatic increase in the use of telemedicine for Medicare patients receiving primary care services. 

Some are calling telemedicine the “new normal,” and expect it to remain a significant player in healthcare delivery. Organizations like the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) have created telehealth toolkits to help physicians incorporate it into their practices. 

“What we have learned about telemedicine is never going away,” says family medicine physician Steven Gordon, MD, who temporarily put aside his locum tenens travels when the pandemic began and is currently enjoying the flexibility offered by practicing telemedicine from his home. “The patients love the convenience.”

Other changes inspired by the pandemic might become more commonplace, too. For example, many medical practices have instituted changes in their waiting room practices, and those could remain. 

One thing that hasn’t changed since the pandemic began: there’s still an ongoing shortage of physicians. Data compiled prior to COVID-19 for the Association of American Medical College’s new report on physician supply and demand indicated that the overall shortage of physicians would range between 54,100 and 139,000 by 2033. 

“I think there’s a lot of concern about workforce well-being and the extent to which older providers, whether that be physicians, dentists, or nurses, anticipate retiring and maybe even retiring early,” says Moore.

Any increase in retirements could spur an increase in demand for locums tenens providers, as well.

The Post-Pandemic Medical Practice: 4 Key Changes to Expect

Getting Started with Locum Tenens

LOCUM LEADERS places physicians and advanced practitioners in locum tenens jobs across the U.S.