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What Is A Locum Doctor? (Role, Rewards & Pay)

What Is A Locum Doctor? (Role, Rewards & Pay)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

There’s a lot of confusing terminology in the medical world that won’t necessarily mean a lot to you if you don’t have a healthcare background.

Before going to medical school, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to tell you what a locum doctor was.

A locum doctor, originating from the Latin phrase locum tenens, meaning “placeholder,” is a medical professional who temporarily fills roles within hospitals, practices, or clinics. These doctors step in to cover for their counterparts who may be on sick leave, sabbatical, or travelling.

Locum doctors are similar to temp teachers in school- they’re there to fill in for when the regular staff member isn’t available.

However, there’s a lot more to locum doctors than just being part-time substitutes. Some doctors actually choose to make working as a locum their entire career.

Understanding Locum Doctors

Locum doctors are medical professionals who temporarily fill positions in hospitals, clinics, or even private practices.

They serve as essential replacements for doctors who are on leave, during peak seasons, or while a permanent physician is being recruited.

Locum doctors hold a significant place in the healthcare industry, as they help maintain the continuity of patient care.

They can work in various specialties and take on different roles, from general practitioners to specialists such as cardiologists or neurologists.

What Is A Locum Doctor Pixel Infographic

Locum doctors may work for a few days, weeks, months, or even years per assignment before moving on to another locum tenens position in a new location.

The rise of locum tenens began in the 1970s as a solution to the challenges faced by healthcare facilities, particularly understaffing and the need for flexibility in physician coverage.

Today, locum doctors play a crucial role in ensuring that hospitals and clinics can provide consistent and high-quality care to their patients.

Healthcare organisations benefit from locum doctors as they can maintain patient care without disruption during periods of staff absence.

Moreover, locum physicians can support facilities in addressing temporary shortages, ensuring that the workloads of permanent staff members remain manageable.

Benefits Of Being A Locum Doctor

Although not regarded as the ‘traditional’ pathway for doctors to follow, there are undoubtedly some significant advantages to being a locum.

Flexibility

One of the main advantages of being a locum doctor is the flexibility it offers.

Locum doctors can choose their working hours, the duration of their contracts, and the locations in which they work.

As a locum doctor, you can pretty much wake up on a Monday morning and decide which shifts you’re going to book for the week.

Have Friday off for a long weekend? Only work every other day? Due to the consistent demand for doctors, the world is your oyster.

I’ve got a friend working as a locum in York who does this and I’ve got to admit I’m pretty jealous!

This flexibility allows locum doctors the opportunity to maintain a better work-life balance and helps in reducing burnout rates often associated with permanent positions in the NHS.

They can choose their assignments according to their preferences, bring their expertise to various healthcare settings and gain exposure to diverse patient populations.

Earning Potential

Locum doctors often enjoy far higher hourly rates compared to their permanent counterparts.

These higher wages are needed for a number of reasons:

  1. To attract doctors to sometimes less than desirable shifts at short notice
  2. To compensate for a lack of sick pay or annual leave
  3. For a hospital to remain competitive in attracting locums against neighbouring trusts

These higher rates can help locum doctors in achieving their financial goals more quickly.

For a doctor in their first year out of medical school, their base contracted hourly rate is approximately £12 an hour.

To take on an extra shift as a locum, they may be offered £40 an hour. You can see what a significant difference that is!

Additionally, locum doctors often have the opportunity to negotiate their wages with the hospitals employing them, as there’s more flexibility in these contracts compared to permanent positions.

Diverse Experience

One often overlooked advantage of working as a locum is the fact that it offers a doctor the opportunity to gain diverse experience.

Locum doctors have the chance to work in various medical settings, from hospitals to GP practices, but importantly can take on work almost anywhere in a hospital.

From the A&E department to a cardiology ward to a plastic surgery department.

By working in different environments, they can develop a range of skills and expand their professional network.

Furthermore, this diversity of experience can contribute to their overall career growth and make them more attractive candidates for future positions.

Challenges Faced By Locum Doctors

Locum doctors experience unique challenges in their professional lives. While the role offers flexibility and variety, it comes with its own set of obstacles.

Lack Of Job Security

One of the primary challenges locum doctors face is the lack of job security.

As temporary staff, they are often contracted for short periods, ranging from days to weeks to months.

This means that locum doctors must constantly search for new opportunities to maintain a steady income.

A doctor working on a laptop
A locum doctor looking at shift availabilities

Additionally, they are not usually eligible for benefits such as paid leave, sick pay or a pension plan, making their overall financial stability less predictable than that of permanent doctors.

If a hospital chooses to suddenly hire a lot of new permanent staff, lucrative locum opportunities can very quickly dry up- meaning you may be forced to switch to working at another NHS Trust if that was your only source of income.

Adjusting To Different Work Environments

Another challenge faced by locum doctors is adjusting to different work environments.

With each new assignment, locum doctors have to adapt to varying workplace cultures, administrative processes, and patient demographics.

I’ve done a bit of locum work in my time and you do feel a bit helpless if you have no idea how to operate an unfamiliar computer system in order to achieve what you want to do for a patient.

Frequent changes in work settings may lead to feelings of isolation, as building relationships with colleagues and patients can be difficult when regularly moving between locations.

Additionally, locum doctors may face challenges in gaining familiarity with new ward layouts, medical equipment, and hospital protocols.

No Set Training Pathway

Lastly, locum doctors often lack a structured training pathway.

While permanent doctors receive ongoing training and professional development within their organisations, locum doctors may not have access to these opportunities consistently.

You’re always a bit of an outsider as a locum, not part of the regular team, so won’t necessarily be invited to training sessions or be given teaching from colleagues.

This can make it difficult for locum doctors to keep up with the latest developments in their fields or to advance their medical careers.

To combat this, locum doctors must take the initiative to pursue continuing education and self-directed learning, which can be time-consuming and not to mention costly.

How Much Do Locum Doctors Earn?

How much a locum doctor earns depends on a lot of different factors:

  • Their seniority- a more senior doctor will command higher rates than a junior one. Locum rates might start at £30/hour for the most junior doctors and go all the way up to over £100/hour for consultants.
  • Their location- different hospitals offer different rates of pay to locums. For example, locum rates tend to be higher in London or more rural locations where there are few doctors available to pick up these shifts
  • How much they work- you can work as little or as much as you want as a locum. The more you work, the more money you’ll earn. Doctors completing full working weeks for the year can easily earn over £100,000, but many choose to take advantage of the flexibility the work offers and work less than full-time.
  • What sort of shifts they work- less desirable shifts are often advertised at higher rates than the others. For example, a locum doctor would generally be offered more money to work a night shift or weekend shift compared to a regular weekday day shift.
  • The hospital’s staffing- if a hospital is severely understaffed and desperate for locums, they’ll generally escalate the rates available to locum doctors. This is in order to attract more doctors to fill shifts that might not otherwise have taken on the work.

At the end of the day, being a locum doctor is a pretty lucrative line of work.

A locum doctor putting on PPE before going onto a ward
Locum doctor putting on a pair of gloves

Not only can you choose when and where you work, but you’re well rewarded for that work.

Although the hourly rates can sometimes seem excessive on paper, it is important to remember that there can be massive fluctuations in the availability of work for a locum doctor and they really don’t have any security in their earnings from one month to the next.

How Do Locum Doctors Find Job Opportunities?

Finding job opportunities as a locum is essential to being able to continue working and continue earning.

Additional Shifts Alongside Contracted Work

The majority of locum shifts a hospital might put out are actually taken up by regular doctors just looking to do a bit of extra work alongside their normal day job.

These aren’t ‘professional’ locums, but rather doctors doing a bit of overtime in order to earn a bit of extra money.

This also allows them to gain experience in various medical settings and broaden their skills and knowledge.

As a result, they can maintain a steady income while keeping their schedule adaptable to various locum opportunities.

Locum Agencies

Another common method for locum doctors to find job opportunities is through locum agencies.

These agencies specialise in connecting healthcare professionals with medical facilities in need of temporary staff.

By registering with a locum agency, doctors can gain access to a wide range of job vacancies, from short-term to long-term positions.

The agency takes care of administrative tasks such as contract negotiation, payroll, and other logistics, allowing locum doctors to focus on their work.

This streamlined process makes it easier for both medical professionals and healthcare providers to find the right fit for their staffing needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between a locum and a normal doctor?

The only difference between a locum and a normal doctor is how they’re contracted to work by a hospital. When on shift, both locum and permanent doctors have exactly the same responsibilities to their patients, work, and responsibility to deliver the same high standard of care.

Do locum doctors get paid more than permanent ones?

Locum doctors generally receive higher hourly rates compared to regular doctors. This is because locum doctors often work on a flexible, contractual basis and may not receive the same benefits as permanent doctors, such as pension contributions, sick pay, and annual leave.

What qualifications do locum doctors hold?

Locum doctors hold the same qualifications and medical degrees as permanent doctors. They must complete their medical schooling, pass the same exams and fulfil the required clinical training hours in order to work as a locum. In short, they’re just as qualified as their permanent counterparts.

Do locum doctors get holiday pay?

As locum doctors typically work on a contractual basis, holiday pay is not usually included in their compensation structure. Rather, their hourly rates tend to be higher to account for the lack of such benefits. However, locum doctors maintain the flexibility to choose when they want to take time off.

Final Thoughts

In summary, while locum doctors enjoy flexibility and variety in their work, they face notable challenges such as lack of job security, adjusting to different work environments, and limited access to structured training opportunities.

However, many locum doctors find that the benefits of their unique career path outweigh these obstacles, allowing them to thrive in their chosen profession.

Their flexibility, adaptability, and skills contribute to the overall stability and functionality of the NHS.

Locum doctors are vital placeholders in the medical field, ensuring that patient care remains uninterrupted in various healthcare settings.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.