What It Takes to Be a Traveling Physician

Some physicians choose to establish their own practice in their hometowns.

Many choose to work as employees of hospitals, clinics, and medical centers close to where they live.

Thousands of others decide to put their medical skills to use wherever there’s need, no matter how far from home that may be.

All physicians have a difficult job to do, but working as a traveling physician without a regular full-time job can be even more challenging.

So what does it actually take to be a traveling physician? Where do traveling physicians work? What are the ups and downs of traveling from place to place compared to working a full-time job in one location?

Here’s everything you need to know about being a traveling physician. From what it takes to become one to where to find work as a traveling medical professional.


What Is a Traveling Physician?

Traveling physicians work as locum tenens physicians. These physicians travel from state to state (and sometimes abroad). They fill in during another physician’s absence or provide additional care when there is more of a demand for medical care than there is supply.

When physicians are away on medical, family, or maternity leave, it’s common for a traveling physician to take their place for a while.

From board-certified surgeons to hospitalists, nurse practitioners to physician assistants, medical professionals looking for a new employment opportunity can often find work as traveling physicians. No matter what your medical specialty may be, a locum tenens position can become available at any time.

According to the 2018 FSMB Census of Licensed Physicians, there are 985,026 actively licensed physicians in the United States. Approximately 50.2% are employed in hospitals and other healthcare settings. About 44% run their own practices or work as a partner in a practice. Roughly 5-6% of all physicians work as independent contractors and prefer locum tenens work.

In 2019, approximately 52,000 physicians worked in locum tenens positions. Some physicians look for locum tenens work in or near their hometown, but many choose to become traveling doctors and work in any place they’re in demand.


The Pros and Cons of Working Locum Tenens

With so many licensed physicians choosing to work locum tenens, you can be sure that it has its fair share of benefits and pros. But for some medical professionals, the traveling physician lifestyle can take some getting used to.

Here are the biggest pros and cons of working as a traveling physician.

PRO: Flexibility

One of the biggest perks of working locum tenens is flexibility. You get to decide where you want to work. You can choose full-time or part-time positions. You don’t have to make a long-term commitment or sign a multi-year employment contract.

Working as a traveling physician can also be a great opportunity for a new physician who isn’t ready to settle in one place or hasn’t been able to find a full-time job.

PRO: The Opportunity to Travel

The most obvious benefit of working as a traveling physician is the opportunity to travel and live, albeit temporarily, in different places.

Physicians may choose locum assignments in the town where they grew up, in the city where they went to college or medical school, in their favorite vacation spot, or in a place they’ve never visited.

Locum tenens work can be rewarding from a professional standpoint and a personal desire to travel and explore.

PRO: The Chance to Explore Different Work Settings

Debating if you should work in an emergency room or urgent care center?

Not sure if you’d be happier working in a small family practice or a large medical group?

Working as a traveling physician gives you the option to work in a variety of different workplace settings.

Locum assignments are available in hospitals, private practices, community clinics, and all other types of medical centers. They are also available in large metro areas, small cities, rural areas, and underserved regions.

This makes traveling positions perfect for physicians who want to try out different workplaces and/or aren’t quite sure where they want to settle down.

PRO: A Better Work/Life Balance

Compared to steady, full-time work, the flexibility that comes with locum work often allows for a better work/life balance.

Some traveling physicians choose to work back-to-back assignments. Others prefer to take time off between jobs, affording them more time to spend with family and friends or pursue hobbies and interests.

PRO: Career Independence

Locum tenens physicians are independent contractors, which allows you to enjoy career independence.

As an independent traveling physician, you can enjoy all of the benefits of a self-employed physician — including the opportunity to reduce your tax burden by deducting business expenses. You can also choose your own insurance policies and create your own schedule.

Most locum positions will require you to work a set schedule and number of hours per week, but traveling physicians have the option to accept or refuse any job that comes their way. If the workload or schedule doesn’t meet their needs, they have the freedom to pass on the opportunity and find one that better suits their lifestyle.

PRO: Networking Opportunities

The more you travel and work in different locations, the more physicians and administrators you can network with.

The broader your network, the easier it will be to get referrals to future physician jobs. This is helpful whether you continue to work as a traveling physician or decide at some point that you’re ready to work in one permanent location.

PRO: Higher Salary

Of all the benefits of working as a traveling physician, the most enticing one is likely the potential for a bigger salary.

Pay rates vary depending upon how many years of experience you have and the demand for physicians in your specialty. According to CHG healthcare, traveling physicians that work full-time earn an average of $32.45 per hour more than physicians working in permanent positions.

CON: Less Stability

Some locum contracts can be as short as a few weeks, while others may require you to be away from home for several months at a time. Some traveling physicians find it challenging to spend long periods of time away from family members and loved ones.

Locum staffing agencies can help you book travel arrangements and obtain short-term leases, but you’ll have to get accustomed to not sleeping in your own bed every night. In the beginning, working on the road can cause some feelings of instability.

Working in different states can also make it more difficult to estimate how much you’ll owe in federal and state income taxes. It can take some time getting used to earning a fluctuating salary and paying different percentages in taxes.

CON: You’ll Need Your Own Insurance Coverage

As an independent contractor, you are responsible for paying for all your own insurance policies, including health insurance. Most physician-employees have health insurance through their employer, but traveling physicians cover the entire cost of health insurance on their own.

Besides health insurance, you’ll also need the protection of malpractice insurancedisability insurance, and life insurance — all of which you’ll have to pay for on your own.

However, there is a positive to this:

You and you alone get to choose the exact policies you want.

CON: Not All Specialties Are in Demand

While it is possible to find locum tenens work in any medical specialty, physicians in the following areas are consistently in demand:

Why do we have a link for internal medicine here but not the other specialties?

The demand for locum tenens physicians is on the rise, particularly for physicians in these areas of medicine.

Physicians in other specialties sometimes have a more difficult time finding consistent locum assignments.

Dive in deeper by reading: The Pros and Cons of Physician Locum Tenens


How to Prepare to Be a Locum Tenens Physician

Multiracial medical team having a meeting with doctors in white lab coats and surgical scrubs seated at a table discussing a patients records

So how exactly does one prepare to become a traveling physician?

The first step is to prepare mentally.

Frequent travel and long periods away from family and friends can take their toll. It’s essential to mentally prepare for a traveling physician’s often hectic, on-the-go lifestyle. (Also, note that if you choose to work sporadic assignments, your overall yearly salary could be far less than that of a full-time physician.)

Before you can start working as a traveling physician, you’ll also need to consider the logistics.

You must obtain a state license to practice medicine in any state that you wish to work in. If you intend to work in multiple states, it can be beneficial to become a compact physician and seek multi-state licensure through the IMLC.

Rather than looking for locum positions on their own, travel physicians can benefit from working with a locum staffing agency.

Why?

Because locum staffing agencies can find you consistent work and assist with the logistics of working on the road.

Locum staffing agencies work with providers ranging from small medical practices to broad hospital networks, so they usually have a large pool of available positions to choose from. If you want to work consistently, agencies can set you up with your next job while you’re finishing up your last.

Agencies can also help with the process of credentialing and assist you in finding housing and booking travel arrangements — unavoidable aspects of travel jobs.

See also: How to Work with a Physician Recruiter


What Types of Insurance Does a Traveling Physician Need?

As we mentioned earlier, traveling physicians are independent contractors, and independent contractors carry their own individual insurance policies.

Locum tenens physicians will need their own:

  • Health insurance – protects against exorbitant medical bills and medical services
  • Disability insurance – protects your future income if you become too ill or disabled to work
  • Life insurance – protects your loved ones and helps you to establish financial independence
  • Malpractice insurance – protects your assets and your medical license

Every physician, traveling or employed in a permanent position, should carry these individual insurance policies. Before you choose to work as a traveling physician, be sure you have all four insurance policies in place.

Related: Understanding Your Physician Independent Contractor Agreement


Are Traveling Physicians Satisfied With Their Career Choice?

Physician in lab coat

There’s no question that physicians are experiencing more burnout and are less happy about their jobs post COVID-19 than before it. With all the demands that the pandemic has put on the healthcare system, that’s to be expected.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 69% of all physicians reported being “happy” with their work/life status. Since the pandemic, that number has dropped to approximately 49%.

But for locum tenens physicians, those numbers vary quite a bit.

There isn’t much hard data on how many traveling physicians are satisfied with their work. Yet, we can draw some conclusions based on what makes physicians dissatisfied and how traveling physicians don’t necessarily have the same concerns.

Physicians are generally happier when they can focus on:

  1. Providing top-quality medical care
  2. Spending more of their time on patient care
  3. Spending less time on administrative work and navigating the bureaucracy of the healthcare system that employs them

Traveling physicians have the unique opportunity to minimize work burnout for a variety of reasons.

One reason is that they can dictate their schedules and have the flexibility to take more time off when needed. Another reason is that temporary assignments typically require more focus on patient care and less time spent dealing with the administrative constraints of the healthcare system.


Can Being a Traveling Physician Help Your Career?

While the lifestyle of a traveling physician is not for everyone, working locum tenens can be quite beneficial to a physician’s career.

In addition to flexibility, a better work/life balance, and higher pay, traveling positions also offer the opportunity for career exploration, which can be an invaluable asset to a physician’s career.

As a traveling physician, you’ll have the chance to test out different workplace settings.

If you work as a traveling physician early in your career, this can help you decide:

  • Which populations you want to provide care to
  • What cities and states allow you to feel most valued
  • Where you feel most confident and comfortable providing patient care

Physicians don’t go into the medical field simply for the money; it’s impossible to overlook the feel-good factor of working as a physician. Traveling physicians get the chance to test out various places and serve different populations until they find the ones that feel most rewarding to them.

It’s also important to recognize the fact that traveling physicians don’t have to be traveling physicians forever. Licensed physicians can, at any point, decide to give up their locum positions in favor of a permanent one.

In some cases, full-time positions and long-term employment contracts may  become available at the end of a locum assignment. If you demonstrate your ability to provide excellent patient care, a short-term assignment as a traveling physician can result in a full-time opportunity.


Whether you’re a primary care physician or work in an in-demand specialty, physicians in most areas of medicine have the option to take locum tenens assignments as frequently or infrequently as they wish.

Just be sure to protect yourself with life, disability, and malpractice insurance.

It doesn’t matter what type of physician you are — every medical professional needs to protect their license, family, future income, and financial assets with insurance.

For more guidance on how to choose the right insurance policies, contact Physicians Thrive.

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