Is locum tenens right for you?

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Medical centers around the country use temporary clinical workers when there are staff shortages or to fill in for staff professionals on vacations and leaves of absence. Centers usually turn to placement services to fill these locum tenens positions for every clinical specialty.

Locum tenens workers are well compensated and can choose how long they remain working in a particular city, state or region. If you are flexible and well organized, locum tenens work can be both personally rewarding and lucrative.

Workers are independent contractors, so they must organize and maintain documentation ranging from certifications and licenses to current immunization records and periodic drug test results. They are often responsible for maintaining their own health and malpractice insurance, and may have to pursue their own continuing education opportunities through professional organizations or online CME services.

There are also downsides that must be assessed when deciding whether locum tenens work is right for you:

  • Social isolation — frequent travel may be stressful on personal relationships and family members
  • Constant change of policies, procedures and patient populations at different medical centers
  • Superficial and fleeting relationships with patients and peers
  • Negotiating housing leases, gym memberships, etc., with every move
  • Hospitals with the most openings may also be the most challenging working environments

Locum tenens agencies often assist workers with state licensure, medical malpractice insurance and housing.

Negotiating strong contracts

Locum tenens assignments may last from less than a week to more than a year. Compensation packages can be negotiated to cover moving and travel expenses and housing expenses, as well as malpractice insurance coverage and a competitive salary. If these expenses are not offered up front by an agency, ask that they be included.

Be sure to protect yourself. Workers should always confirm that a locum tenens agency observes the National Association of Locum Tenens Organizations (NALTO) code of ethics.1 Ask how long the agency has been in business and how many workers it has placed.

Always confirm in writing:

  • Salary
  • Contract duration and whether hours are guaranteed
  • Compensation for overtime and mandatory on-call hours
  • Malpractice insurance coverage.

 

Tax filing tips

As independent contractors, locum tenens workers will receive IRS 1099 forms (instead of W2s) from every employer and must assess their own tax withholdings to avoid IRS penalties and interest.

Most workers estimate the coming year's tax liability as equal to the previous year's, but for short-term workers, estimating quarterly income for the coming year—though time-consuming—can help avoid large tax bills.

It is important that contracts and pay stubs be carefully organized. Per-diem tax deductions for travel, lodging not provided by agencies and food expenses while you are away from your home city, may be claimed at set rates.2

If you work in multiple states within a given calendar year, you should use the services of a tax professional, particularly for assistance with filing state taxes. Make sure your tax professional is familiar with the locum tenens industry.

Bryant Furlow is a medical writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

References

1. National Association of Locum Tenens Organizations. Code of ethics. Accessed Dec. 23, 2010.

2. IRS. Per Diem Rates (for travel within the continental United States). Accessed Dec. 26, 2010.

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