A physician’s guide to working as an independent contractor: How to prepare for a locum tenens assignment

November 28th, 2023 14 Min read A physician’s guide to working as an independent contractor: How to prepare for a locum tenens assignment Blog

This is part three in a five-part series on everything a physician needs to know about working as an independent contractor. If you missed parts one or two, you can read them here: Getting started with locum tenens and Working with a locum tenens agency.

Part three: How to prepare for a locum tenens assignment

Now that you’ve signed the paperwork, it’s time to prepare for your locum tenens assignment! Learn more about what to expect with travel, housing, onboarding, licensing, and credentialing.

Locum tenens travel

If you work with an agency, a travel professional will typically arrange a flight that works with your schedule at no cost to you. You can also book your own flight if you prefer, and most agencies will reimburse this cost, minus any in-flight purchases or the cost of upgrading your flight if you choose to. However, as a physician independent contractor, some of these flight benefits may be tax-deductible, so ask your tax advisor.

Your agency representative wants to ensure you have a great locum tenens assignment, so contact them if you have certain flight preferences, like a window or aisle seat or preferred time of day to travel.

When it’s more convenient to drive your own car to the assignment, the locum tenens agency usually reimburses the miles you travel at the IRS standard mileage rate. The agency also generally pays for a rental car and car insurance if you fly to your assignment, though you may be responsible for the cost if you choose to upgrade the vehicle. While the rental car is intended for assignment and reasonable personal use when you’re not at work, you should return the rental car or pay the agency the difference if you plan to arrive early or stay longer for a vacation or other personal travel.

Finally, the agency will usually reimburse you for other driving costs, including tolls, parking fees, fuel costs (for rental cars only), and mileage (for your own car) as long as you save your receipts.

Most staffing agencies allow you to collect reward points for airline, rental car, or hotel programs you already belong to. Call the agency with your account numbers so they can add them to the reservation and ensure you get reward points.

Locum tenens housing

Most staffing agencies cover your housing costs, including deposits and utilities. They may even pay for furnishings if needed or do their best to find a furnished apartment close to the facility where you’ll be working. For shorter assignments, you may stay in a hotel, which the agency also covers (minus room service, movie rentals, or other incidental costs you may incur).

If you’d prefer to find your own housing, the agency may offer you a stipend or reimburse you for the costs of reasonable housing as the assignment contract defines.

In general, you’ll stay in a standard hotel room if your assignment is a week or less and in a larger hotel room with a kitchenette if your assignment lasts more than one week and up to 30 days. If your assignment lasts longer than 30 days, you’ll typically stay in a leased one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment that includes a TV and a bedroom set.

Home away from home: Dr. Trevor Cabrera shares tips on making your locums housing feel like home

As with travel, it’s important to communicate your housing needs and preferences to your representative so they can try to accommodate them. For example, you can tell the agency you’d prefer to live on either the ground or top floor or specify that you need to be close to an elevator. The representative may also be able to secure a place that meets other preferences, like an on-site fitness center or pool, a king-sized bed, or a washer and dryer.

If you’ll be bringing a partner or family member on your assignment and need a larger apartment or home, it’s important to communicate that to the agency early as well. Note that if the cost to accommodate your family exceeds your assignment’s housing budget, you may be required to pay the difference.

Though the agency doesn’t cover all costs, some doctors have found ways to save money when staying in hotels.

“I stay where there’s a kitchen, and I bring my knife set and some spices. It’s far more cost effective, healthier, and cheaper than eating out,” says Dr. Ripal Patel, who works locum tenens with CompHealth.

Want to bring Fido along? Many agencies can find housing that allows pets, but this may be more difficult. You will also be responsible for any pet-related costs. Watch below how Dr. Michaela Sakumura does locums while traveling with her golden retriever:


Onboarding as a locum tenens physician

Though your locum tenens onboarding experience will vary depending on the assignment, it’s important to know that most facilities expect locum tenens physicians to be ready to jump into their work with minimal training. However, your agency will help as much as they can, usually by sending a first-day letter before you start the assignment with travel details, orientation information, and a link for the time-entry portal.

Your orientation may last only a few hours or a few days, depending on the length of your assignment and the size of the facility. It should include:

  • Parking instructions
  • Facility maps and directions
  • EMR system steps
  • Emergency contacts
  • Staff information, specifically back-up providers who’ll support you

Even if the healthcare facility frequently uses locum tenens providers, you may not get all the information you need, so ask lots of questions. You can also reach out to your agency recruiter anytime, as they are a liaison between you and the facility.

“A lot of hospitals have gone electronic with training videos and online tutorials for the EMR systems, so that’s something you can learn before getting on-site,” says Zac Pew, a CompHealth OB/GYN recruiter. “Onboarding may be different than it used to be, but you can still get the training you need to be successful.”

Onboarding to prepare for your locum tenens assignment

Prepare for your first locum tenens assignment by establishing a relationship with the hospital coordinator. This person will serve as your primary point of contact and can send you any documents or trainings you need to complete before starting.

If possible, arrive one day before your assignment begins so you can orient yourself to the facility to help make the first day go more smoothly. You should also plan to verify your start date and time with the hospital coordinator and dress in business professional attire for your first day, even if scrubs will be the norm every day after that.

Start off strong: How to have a great first locum tenens assignment

Physician licensing for locum tenens

If you need to get a new state medical license in order to work a locum tenens assignment, some agencies will assist you. For example, CompHealth covers all licensing costs and takes care of the filing. This is often the longest and most complicated part needed to prepare for your locum tenens assignment, so following these six tips helps streamline the process:

1. Keep digital copies of all your transcripts, certificates, and other records, preferably stored in one easy-to-access place, like Google Drive or another cloud-based storage option.

2. List the dates of all activities, including employment, graduation, training, and exam attempts, in chronological order.

3. Apply for an expedited license through the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact (IMLC). Individual states still issue each license, but the process is faster. To be eligible, physicians must hold an unrestricted medical license in a Compact member state, which is their primary residence or at least 25% of their medical work occurs in that state.

4. Apply for the Federation Credentials Verification Service (FCVS), which is a way for physicians to store their core credentials so multiple state medical boards can access them for licenses.

5. Renew your existing licenses so you can start a locum tenens assignment faster.

6. Get a new Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) license to go with your new state license. Once you’ve acquired an additional DEA license, it’s usually easier to transfer this for future assignments.

If you’re planning to work in telehealth, you must be licensed in the state where you’ll be working and the state where the patient is currently located.

Dr. Laura Bruse shares her tips: Getting licensed in a new state

Physician working on credentialing

Locum tenens credentialing

The credentialing process ensures a physician is qualified for the locum tenens position they were hired for and eligible to practice. It includes verifying your credentials with the locum tenens agency and securing authorization, or hospital privileging, at the facility where you’ll be working.

Though process length can vary from a few weeks to six months depending on an organization’s requirements, the credentialing process is important because it protects both the physician and facility from liability if the doctor is charged with malpractice or negligence.

Below are the main steps physicians are usually required to complete for credentialing:

  • Application
  • Supporting documents, including medical licenses, DEA ID number, malpractice carrier and case information, board certification, work history, education, and health documentation
  • Malpractice carrier, work history, education, and peer reference verifications
  • Approval from department heads and hospital boards

To simplify the credentialing process:

  • Keep digital copies of your records in a cloud-based storage system so they’re easily accessible
  • Create a list of your malpractice insurance providers and dates
  • Update your employment history regularly and include every facility where you’ve worked
  • Be open about problems or concerns in your work history
  • Have a list of references who are available and ready to respond
  • Stay in touch with the credentialing team and meet all deadlines

It sounds easy to prepare for your locum tenens assignment, right? But there are a few more things you should know before jumping in feet first. Click below to see part four of this series and learn more about how locum tenens pay, malpractice, and taxes work.

Go back to Part Two: Working with a locum tenens agency

Interested in learning more about locum tenens opportunities?  We can help you find your first assignment. Give us a call at 800.453.3030 or view today’s locum tenens job openings.


Lindsay Wilcox

Lindsay Wilcox is a communication professional with experience writing for the healthcare and entertainment industries as well as local government. When she's not circling typos, she's enjoying fish tacos and hanging out with her family.

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