A day in the life of a locum general surgeon

March 19th, 2024 11 Min read A day in the life of a locum general surgeon Blog

This series is a deeper dive into what it’s like to work as a locum tenens physician. For this article, we spoke to general surgeon Dr. Jon Bowersox. He shares how he turned to locum tenens, escaping the politics and “test driving” new places to practice.

In 2012, Dr. Jon Bowersox, a general surgeon for nearly 20 years, was in the process of changing employers. “I had just come back from overseas and was waiting for a contract to come together,” he says. With a gap in employment and not wanting to go multiple weeks without pay, he decided to try something he’d never done before — he took a locum tenens assignment. That was his first toe in the water.

A few years later, Dr. Bowersox turned to general surgery locums for the second time in his career. This time, he was just ready for a change. “I didn't like the hospital’s quality and the people where I was practicing,” he says. “My wife was in graduate school at the time in California, so we were kind of locked there so I thought I would try locums.”

Quote from Dr. Bowersox on how locum tenens shaped his career and lifestyle with more flexibility and independence.

Dr. Bowersox’s second experience as a locum tenens general surgeon was as successful and rewarding as the first. Fast forward to the present day, and he’s what you would call a full-time locum tenens general surgeon. He finds that when it comes to shaping his career and lifestyle, the flexibility and independence that come with working locum tenens can’t be matched.

Locum tenens vs. full-time staff position

With so much experience in both categories, Dr. Bowersox can talk candidly about the differences between working as a locum tenens surgeon and working for a full-time employer as a staff physician. “The positive in working locums is that you don't get involved in hospital politics,” he says. “The negative is probably you're not fully part of the team at the hospital.” If politics do exist, you don’t have much say in them!

For Dr. Bowersox, another positive that comes with locums is the periodic change in scenery, opportunities to meet new people, and be introduced to different methods, approaches, and philosophies. He admits that the arrangement might not be for everybody, but in his case, it aligns well with his background. “I was in the military as well as academic medicine,” he says, “and I think both of those gave me a comfort level in experiencing new environments and going and not expecting things to be done my way but trying to fit into a new role.”

Portrait of Dr. Jon Bowersox, general surgeon
Dr. Jon Bowersox

Your first day as a locum physician

A physician getting ready to start their first locum assignment might wonder what the first day will be like. After completing so many assignments himself, Dr. Bowersox can offer a good description. The first item of business, in his opinion, is becoming familiar with the electronic health record system. After that, he’ll probably spend time touring the various touchpoints of the assignment — in his case, the emergency department, the operating room, and the ICU. Making sure he has access to all these areas is a priority.

However, the amount of time spent in onboarding and orientation varies by assignment. “I’ve got to say the introduction has ranged from a very formal half-day session the day before my assignment starts to starting the morning of a call,” he says. Although it’s probably the exception, in certain instances, an official orientation has had to wait for later in the shift when things aren’t as busy. “With some assignments, I’ve completed four or five consults before I even have computer access.”  

Given that the first day on the job can be somewhat unpredictable, Dr. Bowersox recommends modifying your expectations accordingly. “Say in the military, you move to a new assignment or a new academic medical center — people expect you to become ramped up over a period of a couple of weeks. With a locum assignment, you're on board from the minute you hit the ground.”

Quote from Dr. Bowersox about needing to hit the ground running when working locums

Start off on the right foot: How to prepare for a locum tenens assignment

An average day for a locum tenens general surgeon

Once underway, Dr. Bowersox finds that the day-to-day activities of a locum tenens general surgeon aren’t that much different than those of a surgeon working in a full-time staff position. “Doing trauma acute care surgery general surgery assignments, I’ve found that, in general, you don't have the same elective practice, and you don't see patients preoperatively in the office and set them up. That's probably the primary difference.”

On the other hand, he finds almost no change with acute care surgery. “Obviously, you're meeting the patient for the first time anyway right before surgery, so I found that hasn't been a significant factor, and the expectation is that you will be able to do whatever comes along.”

However, one characteristic or opportunity that he does miss is the continuity of care. “You’re not able to follow the patient after you leave your assignment,” he says, “other than indirectly.” As a result, he makes a special effort at the end of each assignment to ensure a successful handoff of patients, whether to a staff physician or another locum tenens general surgeon like himself.

Covering call as a locum tenens general surgeon

In most of his assignments, Dr. Bowersox finds that his primary purpose is to relieve the call burden of the surgeons on staff. “I think centers — when they look at bringing a locum in — are naturally considering the schedule that’s most wearing on their existing surgeons and trying to alleviate some of that with help from the outside,” he says. Put into practice, this could mean any number of schedules, from working 12 hours in the hospital, followed by 12 hours of backup call, to providing 24/7 trauma call for a certain number of days in a row.

How busy he is on call varies from assignment to assignment. For example, there’s a considerable amount of downtime at a critical access hospital because your only responsibilities are to cover call. “They obviously need a surgeon there for whatever comes through the door, but it's not very frequent,” he says. At the other end of the spectrum, he covered two hospitals in Milwaukee and was constantly engaged during the daytime.

“The trauma center where I’m at now, I’ve been probably working 12 hours of billable time and four more to finish work with all the stuff you don't bill for,” he says. “So, it's variable. Of course, you have the opportunity before accepting an assignment to see if that's what you're looking for. CompHealth has been good about being accurate about what the job position is going to entail.”

Quote from Dr. Bowersox about the flexibility of selecting an assignment with CompHealth

With so much call on the table, Dr. Bowersox recommends learning about some of the expectations and supports associated with the assignment — for example, callback radius and response time, the availability of a call room, meal support, parking plan, and other resources. He says that locum tenens surgeons shouldn’t be bashful asking about these important aspects of the job.

“You’re not inventing the wheel,” he says. “These are concerns the existing surgeons have had to deal with, so they’re already worked out. It’s just a matter of bringing them up and making sure you have all the information.” 

Get advice from a veteran locum: 10 tips for a successful locums assignment

Photo of a general surgeon and another healthcare professional discussing a patient

Discovering new places

As an on-call locum tenens surgeon, Dr. Bowersox has the occasional “downtime” to consider. He spends these moments in various pursuits and hobbies — from taking distance learning courses for a graduate degree to photography, reading, and exercising. He keeps his locum assignments short — usually no more than a week — to limit time away from family. Often, he’ll take an assignment simply for the opportunity to explore a particular area of the country or even “test-drive” the possibility of becoming one of the locals.

By “test-drive,” Dr. Bowersox means getting to know an area, a hospital, a clinic, or staff before accepting a position as a surgeon there. “It certainly depends on the assignment, but at pretty much every assignment I’ve accepted, I’ve afterward been offered the opportunity to continue as either a contract or full-time employee,” he says. According to Dr. Bowersox, locums is the perfect tool for determining whether a particular position is a good fit.

Finding the right career path

The list of rewards and advantages to working as a locum surgeon goes on — as evidenced by Dr. Bowersox’s experiences. The longer he does it, the more confident he is that locum tenens is the right career path for him, at least for now. “It's a great fit for me.”

Want to learn more about locum tenens for general surgeons? Call us at 800.453.3030 or view today’s locum tenens general surgeon job opportunities.



Dave Nielsen

Dave Nielsen lives in Salt Lake City. He writes about healthcare, technology, and business.

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