In the 1970s, a grant designed to help bring medical care to underserved rural communities revolutionized general practice. The concept of family practice locum tenens was born. Latin for “to hold the place of, to substitute for”, locum tenens physicians groups were made possible by a grant received by the Health Services Research Institute, a non-profit organization. Further development of the principle has led to improved health care for rural and agricultural communities across the country, as well as better working conditions for overworked rural physicians.
The Birth of a Movement
When Therus Kolff, MD, MPH and Alan Kronhaus, MD first met at the University of Utah, they were both involved in the Health Services Research Institute (HSRI). The HSRI was formed by the Intermountain Regional Medical Program and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in conjunction with the University of Utah. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided the HSRI with a grant for an experimental project designed to entice physicians to relocate to rural communities.
A Widespread Problem
At that point, there was a rampant shortage of physicians in underpopulated areas. Doctors were reluctant to open up practices in towns where they would be the only medical professionals and therefore would be unable to take the breaks they needed. As a result, people were required to drive long distances to metropolitan areas to find medical care, or would go without care unless it was life or death.
An Equitable Solution
The HSRI concluded that the best way to persuade doctors from the cities to move to the smaller towns was to create a group of physicians who were willing to work short-term assignments in neighboring communities. The short-term assignments would be to cover for doctors that required respite or a break, with the understanding that they would be able to have time off between jobs. The HSRI gave Kolff and Kronhaus the approval needed to establish the group and within a year, the group had expanded from family practice locum tenens to include other practices and facilities.
Over the last few decades, more than 25 locum tenens staffing companies have entered the marketplace. The industry has grown to more than $2 billion a year, providing temporary physicians to fill both short and long term gaps.
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