They may be temporary, but locum tenens physicians provide quality care, researchers say

Male doctor in white lab coat
A new study finds locum tenens doctors provide quality care to hospitalized patients. (Getty/Saklakova)

Hospitalized patients fare just as well when they're treated by temporary locum tenens doctors as the permanent physicians they replace, according to a new study.

Researchers found no difference in 30-day mortality rates among hospitalized Medicare patients between those treated by locum tenens internal medicine physicians and those treated by non-locum tenens, according to the study, published today in JAMA.

With the increasing use of locum tenens doctors in the U.S., the researchers looked at whether there were differences in the quality of inpatient care provided by the temporary physicians at acute care hospitals. Researchers studied more than 1.8 million Medicare patients hospitalized between 2009 and 2014 and found no significant difference in 30-day mortality rates between those treated by a general internist who was working locum tenens compared with non-locum tenens.

The study, led by researchers at Harvard Medical School, did find overall that patients treated by locum tenens had slightly higher Medicare Part B charges, longer lengths of stay and lower 30-day readmission rates compared with patients at the same hospital who were treated by non-locum tenens physicians.

The locum tenens industry is growing as impending physician shortages and other changes in healthcare are increasing the use of temporary physicians. More doctors are working locum tenens, taking temporary jobs in hospitals, group practices and clinics.

They choose locum tenens work for a variety of reasons: good pay, the freedom to live in a new place or the chance to have a more defined work schedule. One locum placement firm, Staff Care, reported that more doctors than ever—about 48,000—were working locum tenens in 2016. Many physicians who are coming to the end of the end of their careers are keeping their hand in medicine by doing locum tenens work.