Towards the end of 2015 I made a few changes in my life; I decided to try to exercise a little more, drink a little less, and finally give up the evils of celery once and for all. I also left my long-term job of 13 years and started working as a locum.

Locums: the medical equivalent of a supply teacher, parachuting in to help practices when they are short of staff.
Locums are the medical equivalent of a supply teacher, parachuting in to help veterinary practices when they are short of staff.

For the non-vetty types that might be reading this – and you probably know already, because locums in the NHS have been in the news a lot recently – locums are “fill-in-the-gaps” vets (or nurses); the veterinary equivalent of a supply teacher.

We parachute in to help practices when they are short of staff. The pay is better per day than normal veterinary work, to make up for the lack of sick pay or job security.

Time for a change

The idea of becoming a locum first crossed my mind when I was clinical director at my last practice, mainly because of the difficulties I experienced in filling my employment vacancies – if I was very lucky I’d get three or four applicants when I advertised for a position.

Despite a new university opening in the UK, there still seem to be more job vacancies than vets available. It seemed to be a seller’s market. And so it proved to be.

Working as a locum has many advantages, and many disadvantages. It gives you the opportunity to try out lots of different practices, and find out what sort of place suits you.

The main difference in the day-to-day work that an ex-long-termer like myself notices is that when I walk through the door to start the day, instead of being pounced upon by three different people at once telling me that this person has complained about that, or that this patient came in overnight and the client will only talk to me, or that the boiler has exploded overnight, I can instead peacefully (if slightly desperately) locate the kettle and make myself a cup of coffee, while I try to wrestle with whichever new and excitingly fiddly computer system I’m going to be working with. Locum work is less stressful, in that respect at least.

Inflating the ego

It’s quite easy to be a good locum – you turn up, see what work there is to be done, and do it to the best of your abilities.

Locum work is also rather good for the ego, because the other vets in the practice tend to appreciate it when you notice they’re snowed under with blood results and phone calls and help out by doing as much of the routine work as possible for them – which leads to a lot of “we’re so glad you came, are you going to come back?” comments, which can’t but make you feel a little good about yourself.

The other main advantage – which is a little harder to admit as a locum – is the slightly blissful feeling that, if you’re dealing with particularly complicated case, it isn’t going to be your problem for very much longer.

There is a flip side to that, of course: you don’t get to follow up your cases as much as you might like, and you tend to feel that you’re abandoning clients once you have gained their trust – but the solution to this is, as with so many things in life, to be honest to the client and write good notes.

Suspicious minds

Locum quote
Original image: denissimonov / Fotolia.

Locum work has other disadvantages too. The first, related to this, is that clients are naturally slightly suspicious of a new face who isn’t going to be around for very long, and the word “locum” has become something of a dirty word thanks to the media reports treating it as such in their reports of their usage in the NHS.

Fortunately, whatever my personality is like outside of work (no comments on this please), it does seem to be quite winning within the confines of a consulting room, so this frosty reception doesn’t usually last very long.

The second disadvantage is that you tend to get left with the “boring” work – the routine vaccinations, operations and consultations – while the other vets in the practice get stuck in to their meatier cases. Personally, though, I feel that after 13 years of meaty cases, I’m happy with a bit of a vegetarian veterinary diet – at least for a little while.

Office politics

The final disadvantage is a mixed one too – you, of course, don’t know any of your colleagues when you arrive. Over the week you get to know them, and start to relax with them, and then before you know it you’re doing it all again with a fresh set of faces.

This sometimes leaves you feeling a little detached, but it comes with one major advantage. Politics are present in every practice to a greater or lesser degree. In a long-term position the politics rise to the fore and become one of the chief focuses (and, quite often, stresses) of the day. As a locum, you’re not blind to the politics, but you can observe them from afar and, for the most part, cheerfully ignore them.

So, locum work – it’s been an interesting few months. I have seen how a lot of different practices work (and, occasionally, don’t), and I’ve had to up my game because I’ve been aware that my notes will be scrutinised by other vets in weeks to come (probably wondering “what was that bloody locum doing?”).

But now, almost as soon as they have begun, my days as a locum are drawing to a close, and another career change beckons. By the time you read this, I’ll have embarked on a new life as a resident in clinical pathology – an opportunity that came up because of the freedom that locum work gives you.

To anyone out there wondering about whether they would enjoy locum work, I hope this blog gives you some idea. Just like a trip to the Pencil museum in Cumbria – it’s not for everyone, but everyone should try it at least once.

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1 Comment on "Semi-detached: the pros and cons of life as a locum"

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Neil Wheadon
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Neil Wheadon
1 year 15 days ago
Interesting article and as a ‘professional locum’ for the past 5 years recognise a lot in this. One comment to add is that many many placements are within single handed places, a fact that was glossed over here, so you will be working a lot on your own. In this respect you need to have a degree of experience behind you and have an ability to cope with pretty much anything. You can’t ignore that Cushings blood sample if the boss is gone for a week. Also be careful with politics, you are dealing with a team that are closer… Read more »
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