Incorporating Locums into Your Practice to Hedge off Burnout

Difficulties Locums Face - Updated July the 30th, 2021

Your current doctors have reached maximum output. If they don’t get a break soon, they’re threatening to mutiny.

There’s just one problem: the schedule’s booked solid. Closing the clinic isn’t an option. Double-booking someone else will only exacerbate the stress, not to mention adding guilt to whoever takes that much-needed vacation. What can be done to save your practice? 

Locums provide a solution to everyone’s problems.

Enter Locums

Locum tenens or relief vets are the equivalent of substitute teachers. They take over when your vets need extended time away from the clinic. That can look like parental leave, time off to care for family members, vacation, or even a lengthy sabbatical. Paying a locum tenens salary may end up saving your practice a huge sum of money. 

Locum tenens is a Latin term for “hold the place” – precisely what these professionals do. They step in while your permanent staff step out, allowing the doors to stay open, so there’s no loss of revenue.

The Locuming Trend

Veterinary schools continue to send fresh faces into the industry. Unfortunately, practices still struggle to fill permanent positions. This is likely due to a growing trend of dissatisfaction among the veterinary industry. Professionals report anger over

  • Difficult employers
  • Excessive workloads
  • Relentless pressure from clients and employers
  • Unrealistic client expectations

In a field plagued by unrelenting stress, poor mental health, burnout, and excessively high numbers of suicide, it’s no surprise that many veterinarians elect to leave private practice in favor of locuming. Freedom from localized drama and a need to exert control over their work-life factor high in the decision. When health and sanity are on the line, people choose themselves over a defection from the field.

Making the Call

Relief vets present a unique opportunity for your practice.

A locum doctor can free up your permanent staff from an exhausting workload, giving them a chance to recharge and avoid that dangerous burnout. Locums also provide a unique avenue for the exchange of knowledge, techniques, and insight.

Locuming exposes professionals to a variety of practices. The flexibility in their schedule bounces them from small general practices to bustling emergency practices, to specialty practices with advanced technological equipment. They experience new challenges at each post, learning to adapt and grow their abilities. It’s knowledge you have the opportunity to incorporate into your practice when you invite them aboard.

Similar to networking at a veterinary conference, locums share ideas and management styles over cases. They may not handle a patient long-term, but they gain insight into new therapies through their travels. You’ll find their varied background to be a fresh asset to your practice, especially when your current doctors are exhausted from the daily grind.

Balancing Act

Locums choose to step away from permanent positions for a variety of reasons. The majority cite a lack of happiness. Anxiety and depression run high in the veterinary industry, and a lack of control over the work environment contributes. Relief vets considered a lengthy list of pros and cons before deciding to venture out independently. You should do no less when reflecting on the necessity of bringing locums into your practice.

Cheers to Locums

Locums don’t require paid sick leave or vacation time. They aren’t full-time employees, and you’ll handle less paperwork, as most of it rests on their shoulders. So while you need to coordinate bringing them into the practice with your doctors’ planned time off, you don’t need to worry about when they’ll want to take a trip to the Caribbean.

Flexibility swings both ways with locuming. A lack of understanding concerning schedules drives a lot of professionals away from private practice. Child care, outside classes, even vacations often got dismissed. Locums desire more control over their calendars. As such, you’ll find relief vets willing to work within your needs. You need to be mindful of time outside of their stipulation (it’ll result in overtime pay), but most locums are happy to work with you. That freedom goes a long way toward reducing stress. 

Hesitating on Locums

There are a number of downsides to hiring locums that veterinary groups should consider before making an investment:

  • Recruitment fees. Locums are often hired through recruiting agencies that charge hefty fees. A locum tenens salary can be more than you’d first expect. Veterinary groups must carefully consider whether they can afford to bring temporary relief professionals into the workforce without breaking the bank. 
  • Client anxiety. Some clients may feel anxious about putting the health of their beloved pets into the hands of temporary professionals. Even when locums are well qualified, many clients may prefer the touch of a full-time expert they’re already familiar with. 
  • Office discord. Your current team members are familiar with one another and work well together. Temporary professionals may generate discord in the office by injecting new faces into a hectic work environment. Take steps to ensure relief professionals and full-time veterinary doctors are comfortable working together on short notice. 
  • Inconsistent care. While Locums are often praised for injecting new ideas into stagnant practices, they may also provide care that is inconsistent with your normal standards. Even if Locums provide excellent service, it may be so inconsistent with what patients normally receive that it generates harm or triggers a loss of revenue. 

You may not have to juggle a locum’s sick leave, but you still pay the price to onboard them. Relief vets justify that forfeiture of leave with higher charges. Highway robbery? Not when you think it through. Locums handle their own expenses. That includes taxes, licensing, travel, and continuing education – the paperwork and finances you usually cover for full-time staff. If you compare the higher fees of locums with the benefits you allow your stressed staff, locums draw the short end of the stick.

Your team is a well-oiled machine. They have a routine that works seamlessly, often with minimal communication. The staff know what your doctor means even if they use monosyllables. A fresh locum won’t have that capability. Odds are they won’t even know where the crucial coffee machine is located. The interruption to workflow, the necessity for asked questions, and the possible resentment of changes in case management are inevitable. Bringing on relief vets requires a hefty dose of patience – on everyone’s part.

Bringing Locums Aboard

You know the signs of exhaustion in your doctors. They haven’t left the office on time in weeks. Their to-do pile is overflowing with incomplete charts. Staff mutter under their breath about simple mistakes. Their last official time off was a half-day to visit the hospital for a cat bite. It’s time to bring in a locum and grant that request for a vacation. Good thing you have resources to find relief vets:

Check the Boxes

You want to protect your practice and the incoming locum during this phase. That means having a clear plan in mind. Interview potential candidates the same way you would a permanent hire. You’ll find a better match for personalities that will blend with your staff, causing less friction during the locuming period.

Download an exact, concise checklist to haveon-hand throughout the interview and hiring process:

If your – and your locum’s – scheduling permits, have them come in a day earlier than you need. It provides a trial run for your practice, and it gives them a chance to ease into the pace of the clinic. Plus, they’ll learn where that coffee machine’s located.

The Difficulties Locums Face

Veterinary Locums face unique challenges which make it difficult to succeed. Before bringing Locums into your practice, consider how you’re going to help them overcome these hurdles when it comes to delivering positive patient outcomes: 

  1. Locums are often scapegoats. When something goes wrong, it’s easy to blame the new hire. Take extra steps to ensure the locums you hire aren’t being wrongly castigated for mistakes which were not truly their fault. Fail to treat your locums fairly, and soon you’ll be deprived of the relief workforce you need to meet heightened patient demand. 
  2. Temporary work is uncertain. Even the best locum tenens companies can’t provide consistent work for all of their temporary professionals. While temporary workers can often find limited employment, they may struggle to schedule the amount of hours they need to pay the bills. Look after the financial well being of your locums to ensure they’re available when you need them. 
  3. A lack of follow-up. Most locum doctors are only temporarily stationed at a clinic or hospital – they may not stick around for long enough to see how the health of their patients eventually turns out. This can be mentally and emotionally exhaustive; ensure your locums are kept in the loop about positive patient outcomes which occur after they leave, and you’ll proactively be bolstering their mental health and willingness to work. 

I find clear communication with the clinic manager or lead veterinarian prior to the shift really helps prepare me for the day. I appreciate clarity on what type of clinic I will be at – high volume that fits within client budgets or gold standard care that relies on client education and in depth medicine. I’ve also gone into clinics that gave me welcome packets with computer and software passwords, which I found very useful. My final tip for a successful welcome to a newcomer would be to pair us with a more experienced technician who has in depth knowledge of appointment flow, hospital policies, software, and pharmacy.

Kayleigh S. Foster, DVM, Core Relief Veterinarian at Roo

Paving the Way

No one likes breaks in routine. This goes double for staff and triple for clients. Remember, locums often backed away from permanent positions to avoid staff drama. If they encounter constant resistance, they won’t return to assist you in the future.

Explain the locuming process to your staff ahead of time. Technicians need to understand locums may use different therapeutic measures, suture techniques, or even antibiotic choices from the “norm.” Rather than viewing this as an intrusion, explain it as a chance to learn a fresh perspective. Locums gain knowledge with every clinic they visit, and they’re not shy about sharing that information. Your staff can embrace this opportunity and benefit from it with the proper preparation.

Never use the terms “locum” or “relief” when speaking with clients. It makes them nervous. Instead, prompt receptionists to use your locum’s name. “Dr. Jones is an associate of Dr. Frank, and she’s wonderful with cats,” comes off much better than “you’re seeing our relief vet today.” Form a connection for your locum to work with. Your practice will retain scheduled appointments, ensuring continued revenue during your permanent doctor’s needed retreat.

Locums are far from the enemy. They provide a vital service to the veterinary industry. With overwhelming numbers of stress, mental collapse, and suicide, relief vets allow staff to step away, breathe, and rejuvenate their love for their profession.

If you see signs of burn out, consider bringing on a locum. Your practice will benefit from the experience.

We wish to express our gratitude to our dear friend Kayleigh S. Foster, DVM, Core Relief Veterinarian at Roo, for sharing her expert opinion and insights as a full-time relief vet professional.