Locum Tenens Can Help Reduce Physician Burnout

Often discussed and lamented, physician burnout is an unrelenting problem in the healthcare industry that can affect patient care quality, patient experience, and the bottom line for healthcare organizations and physician practices.

How bad is the problem of physician burnout? Nearly half of physicians say that often or always feel burned out, according the 2016 Survey of America’s Physicians: Practice Patterns and Perspectives, conducted by Merritt Hawkins on behalf of The Physicians Foundation. In addition:

  • 80% of physicians are overextended or are at capacity, with no time to see additional patients
  • 63% are pessimistic about the future
  • 49% would not recommend medicine as a career

Strategic Use of Locum Tenens

An important part of the solution to physician burnout for healthcare organizations is the strategic use of locum tenens physicians to supplement medical staffs that are feeling the strain of overwork during peak usage periods or due to understaffing. Working locum tenens also can be a way for older physicians to avoid or escape burnout and remain in the workforce longer.

Locum Tenens Can Help Reduce Physician Burnout

For younger physicians, locum tenens can provide practice flexibility they may be seeking to counter the risk of burnout. The percentage of physicians who say they plan to work locum tenens has been increasing, according to the physician’s survey. A larger workforce of temporary physicians may be utilized as an antidote to burnout.

According to the Medscape National Physician Burnout & Depression Report 2018, the burnout rate increases as physicians age, peaking at 45-54 age group, affecting employed and self-employed physicians equally.

Physicians reporting burnout say the leading cause is an excess of bureaucratic tasks (56%) and too many hours at work (39%); other causes include lack of respect from administrators and colleagues, increasing computerization, lack of autonomy, and feeling like a cog in a wheel. The leading solution, according to physicians themselves, would be increased compensation (35%). But most of the rest involve improvements in work environment, such as improved and more flexible scheduling, reduced patient load, increased autonomy, greater respect, and more time off.

Approximately 60% of physicians at healthcare organizations, along with academic, research, military or government facilities, say they have a workplace program to reduce stress and burnout, and 45% of those working at hospitals also said the same. About a third of physicians working in outpatient settings say they knew of such programs. That means that anywhere from 40% to approximately 70%, depending on setting, know of no access to stress reduction or burnout prevention programs. What’s more, just because such programs exist does not mean that physicians have the time or opportunities to make full use of them.

Stress on Physicians to Rise

The continuing increase in the physician shortage, on top of other changes that heighten the complexity of medical practice, may exacerbate the causes of stress and burnout. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, by 2025 there will be a deficit of up to 90,400 physicians. In addition, the aging of the U.S. population is resulting in greater complexity of cases, because older people are more likely to have multiple chronic conditions.

As stresses on physicians escalate, programs and other efforts to alleviate stress, depression, and burnout in physicians will become more critical. Expanding the use of locum tenens can give physicians the time to take advantage of such programs, or to simply take more time off or have more time with patients. Physicians working locum tenens represent an increasingly large and important resource that can be used to enhance the retention of full-time doctors by reducing overwork and burn-out.

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