How to stay safe as a traveling physician

There was nothing unusual about my hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, when I checked in, but when I headed down to check out the laundry facilities and saw police swarming the lobby and parking lot, I knew it was time to move.

Thankfully, experiences like that have not been common during my time working as a locum tenens (physicians who work in temporary assignments to fill critical gaps in care) for over a decade. Personal safety is something to keep in mind as a physician if you are considering making the jump to locum tenens, especially as workplace violence in health care settings is increasing dramatically. According to the PBS report, American health care workers now suffer more nonfatal injuries from workplace violence than workers in any other profession. Violence against physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals is not a new phenomenon with incidences widely documented worldwide. Travel medicine, although not inherently more hazardous in terms of violence, can perhaps create a level of uncertainty for physicians due to the insecurity of being away from what’s familiar.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned working locums that will help you stay safe and sane, whether taking an assignment in your own backyard or in a city unfamiliar to you.

Partner with the right staffing company. Find a company — and a rep — that you feel comfortable with and who can help find the ideal assignment that meets your personal standards. Every clinician is going to have unique needs. A company that has the type of job you are looking for and that is able to support you and help you complete the assignment safely is the right partner.

Get to know the travel department. When I saw the police officers in the Anchorage hotel, I knew I could pick up the phone and call the travel department at my staffing company, and they would move me immediately to a different hotel. And they did, without question. Or when I get up at 3:00 a.m. to catch a flight — only to find that flight has been canceled — it is invaluable to be able to hand the details over to someone on the travel team and know they will take care of the details and get me where I need to go. Feeling like someone has my back has given me the confidence to try different jobs that I may not have explored had the support not been there.

Rediscover what you love. I worked as a full-time physician for several years and was always under pressure to see more patients and never take time off. Making the switch to locum tenens has helped me to remember what I love about medicine and allowed me to select jobs that enable me to do more of those things, such as working in underserved communities. And if I need a break, I can shift gears into something else for a bit. That is a luxury that, traditionally, medicine does not afford physicians.

Set boundaries and stick to them. This is true for any physician, but women particularly can find this more challenging in medicine. Remember to take care of yourself and don’t feel pressured to overextend when your assignment invariably wants you to work more shifts. It’s easy to wear yourself out trying to be helpful. Your staffing liaison can be a huge ally here, checking in and making sure you aren’t taking on too much.

Be open to new experiences. Be open to new places, experiences, and different ways to practice medicine. Learning from each assignment has made me a much stronger physician.

Combining travel and my career in medicine has been more rewarding than I could ever have imagined, and I’m still excited every time I hop on an airplane to go out on a new assignment. Yet it can be daunting heading out to an unfamiliar place on your own. Having a great team to back you up is key to making sure you stay safe and maintain the work-life balance that drew you to travel medicine in the first place.

Janelle Jones is a hospitalist.

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