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On the job

How to be a successful locum

More GPs are now making a calculated decision to become a locum and escape the burden of a partnership – Dr Claire Bailey advises on how to create a successful locum career

Although I can see why many GPs think being a locum is a scary step, for me it was an obvious choice. I had spent seven years moving jobs every six months and when I started to locum in 2001 I was looking for a flexible option for an undetermined length of time.

I was 30 and single and didn't want to sign a complicated partnership agreement knowing that I may well want to move or do other things before settling down. Having said that, in recent years I have noticed it has become more fashionable to enter into partnerships for shorter periods of time. I meet more and more locums who have left partnerships after only five years to try the freelance life.Locuming is not just restricted to newly qualified GPs waiting for a partnership, but open to all GPs at all stages of life. To be a successful locum does not just depend on your skill as a doctor but your personality and organisation skills too.

Making the move

So who is right for the job? In my opinion any GP – but a single GP who wants to see the UK will benefit the most in that they can travel at short notice and be well paid for it. At the other end of the spectrum, a mother of three fixed to one area can also have lots of work but it will take more time to become established. In terms of financial arrangements, I would advise you allocate some savings for the mortgage if work is slow to pick up. The best approach though is to have work lined up in advance and then you will feel more secure.

In the past it was probably fair to say there were some dubious doctors on the locum circuit but nowadays this is not the case. The competition out there is high as more and more doctors decide to locum for a period of time. Also it can be disheartening when you start out, as you may be treated with caution until a practice becomes confident you can do the job.

Establishing yourself on the market

To succeed with minimal stress there are some essential things you need. You need a reliable mobile phone and laptop. This will be the main way work will come to you. I prefer email, as there is nothing more frustrating for a practice to be calling your phone that is always switched off. Also you do not find yourself struggling with tatty bits of paper that you may lose.

You need an up-to-date CV to send to practices you know you might want to work in and also to register with a locum agency. You will need all your papers in order, and copies of certificates such as hepatitis B can be very useful.Locum agencies are great if you can move around but if you have children in school and are fixed to a 10-mile radius you may be better off speaking personally to all those practices within your area.You will need to inform your defence body of your plans, and depending on how you choose to locum they will give you a rate (for example, an average of six sessions a week).Don't forget to register to pay class 2 national insurance contributions during the year by direct debit. Furthermore, unless you have lots of time and are a tax whiz, get over the cost and employ an accountant to deal with the rest. Often they save you enough to justify their cost and they get the job done at the right time. They will best advise you on your rights as a self-employed person and what privileges you have.It may be worth having some business cards made up. At one time they were considered a bit naff and pretentious but they do serve a useful purpose. They come in to their own if you have a difficult name to spell or an off-the-wall email address.

Benefits

Probably the main benefit is that you decide when you want to work. This really does take the pressure off if you're trying to balance your partner's career as well as the children and moving house.

You can live in different parts of the UK and gain considerable experience of different styles of practice management.You can earn reasonable money but remember to save for your tax bill as you go. There is a downside, which is the loss of certain valuable privileges, such as paid study leave, holidays and maternity rights.I have been a locum GP now for four years and worked in a real mix of NHS, military and out-of-hours sessions in several parts of the country. I have also managed to take time off to do rather a lot of sailing, including six months off on a round-the-world speed record attempt. I now have a 14-month-old daughter and am still locuming but with good family support and established childcare.

Dr Claire Bailey is a locum GP in Devon

Top tips for locuming success

• Get organised• Be happy to live with some uncertainty• Factor in time to do the things you always wanted to but didn't have enough leave for when you were a partner• Save to pay taxes without fail• Mix rural and city jobs if you can, to gain experience of different types of practices • Keep up to date with your medical education – for example through a website – and print off the evidence that you have done it

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