What’s the Connection Between Locum Tenens Physicians and Telehealth?

Posted by Michael Greiwe, MD | December 26, 2018 |
Michael Greiwe, MD

“A stable and well-supported surgical locum tenens community seems to be one important option to engage surgeons who might otherwise temporarily or permanently leave the workforce. Hospitals and private practices, especially those in rural areas, recognize that locum tenens physicians are one important option that provides coverage for their surgeons for paid time off, illness, family/parental leave, or for vacation or other absences from the office.”
Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons

Locum tenens physicians have big shoes to fill. Hospitals and ambulatory centers are facing serious labor shortages in the coming years. Simply put, the supply of doctors is predicted to fall short of demand in the next decade. We’re already feeling the pinch in rural communities struggling to find specialists and primary care providers. Locum tenens physicians have traditionally provided a safety net to ease staffing shortages or to fill in when providers get sick or need time off.

Locum tenens has been a powerfully effective strategy that has clinical merit; a JAMA study showed no significant differences in the quality of care between locum tenens doctors and primary staff.

The idea of locum tenens has been around for 40 years, but the model is particularly important today. By 2015, Becker’s was reporting that locum tenens are a viable option for hospitals to consider, and indeed many of them now use locum tenens as an important supplement to their regular service lines. A 2017 study showed more than 90% of clinical facilities now use locum tenens staffing.

It seems clear that the need for locum tenens providers will continue. But one big change to the model will be the increasing application of telemedicine to help stretch providers further. Could the combination of telehealth with locum tenens staffing be exactly what the doctor ordered to fix our clinical staffing shortages?

Telehealth and Locum Tenens

Many physicians don’t want to hear it, but healthcare is changing. This change is inevitable and disruptive, with technology as the driver. Today we know that patients are seeking better access, reduced costs, and more control over their healthcare. Telehealth technology provides our healthcare customers with exactly what they want. These tools allow us to bring the virtual house call directly to our patients in a way that improves physician efficiency and customer convenience.

But how could our continued focus on improving access, achieving higher quality scores, and reducing costs benefit if telehealth – which has been consistently proven to provide these things – were combined with locum tenens services?

It’s an innovative idea that leverages an on-call network of replacement doctors, nurses, and other midlevels, and then accelerates their reach by giving them telehealth tools. Could integrating these models mitigate the combination of provider shortages and physician burnout? What are the benefits of a locum tenens telehealth network for patients and providers?

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Benefits for Patients

For the patient, the concept of a telemedicine visit is no longer the anomaly; the majority of our customers say they would like to try telehealth. Patients that use the service cite clear benefits:

  • The convenience of skipping the travel to a clinical site. Patients now have the option for treatment in the privacy of their own home. Medical providers have responded by shifting models toward minute clinics and urgent care or other retail facilities. Many times these facilities combine locum tenens doctors with telehealth tools to diagnose and treat these patients remotely and quickly. This model holds such promise that Becker’s Health IT & CIO Report called it “the wave of the future.”
  • Increased accessibility for treatment, with reduced scheduling and in-office wait-times. Long wait times are an increasing concern of both patients and providers. The studies show that waiting for care drops patient satisfaction scores significantly. Patient wait times will likely increase in direct correlation with the physician shortage. With value-based reimbursement increasing, this will likely have a negative bottom-line impact for healthcare providers.

Combining telehealth with locum tenens staffing will improve customer access to our services. The studies show it also reduces costly no-shows in the clinical practice while cutting costs. The American Journal of Managed Care suggests that providing care via telehealth can reduce unnecessary hospital admissions. This is a huge benefit for patient and provider cost reduction strategies.

Benefits for Providers

Today the demands we place on our physicians are staggering. That pressure will only increase as the provider shortage worsens. Nearly 50% of physicians in the United States say they are burned out and depressed. There is a quiet crisis going on and our clinicians are struggling to cope.

Physician burnout has a significant negative effect on patient care quality and experience, as well as the bottom line for healthcare providers. But Becker’s Hospital Review suggests the solution lies within our grasp:

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.

But the benefits for clinicians extends to professionals working in the employment model; locum tenens doctors say the work improves their quality of life. A few years ago Physicians Practice published a survey that showed doctors working under a locum tenens model found these benefits:

  • Locum tenens was a good fit to improve and control their schedule.
  • Locum tenens doctors use the model to help them see the world.
  • They also appreciated being able to serve rural or underserved communities.
  • The model allowed doctors to continue working during a time of transition.
  • It also allowed them to “try before buying,” checking out a hospital or health system before making a commitment.

Healthcare facilities benefit from the locum tenens model by expanding care in areas where they don’t have a patient load to support a full-time clinician. It’s a smart staffing strategy that helps cut costs; something that will be increasingly important in the coming years.

Yet we have the tools in front of us to help reduce clinician burnout. Imagine a locum tenens on-call network of providers armed with HIPAA-compliant telemedicine tools. OrthoLive has that resource available now.

OrthoLive Locum Tenens Telehealth Network

OrthoLive has built a nationwide locum tenens telehealth network fueled by low-cost, HIPAA-compliant, and secure technology. Our approach can provide your team with a way to improve the lives of clinicians and the patients they serve. Contact us today to find out more about how we can change things for the better.

Topics: "telehealth", "telemedicine", technology, physician shortage, locum tenens