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The Right (and Wrong) Reasons for Taking a Locum Tenens Appointment Overseas – temporary assignments for physicians and healthcare providers

By Adam Ghosh

First things first- if anyone asked my advice on the prospect of their taking a locum tenens position somewhere that fascinated them, at home or abroad, I’d tell them- “Do it,” in a second. That applies particularly to recent grads of a med program but I’d probably offer the same counsel to established pros looking for a mid-career adventure. Nothing is an absolute guarantee but I honestly don’t think I’ve ever met someone who’s regretted their tour or two (or more) as a locum. Not only do locum tenens often get paid better than permanent staffers, it’s an economically practicable vehicle for exploring a part of the country or world and a specialization you’re curious about.

And a locum tenens tenure overseas can be an especially exotic, culturally-enlightening, exciting and experientially-abundant undertaking. However, if a doctor, PA, RN/LPN, etc. contracts a foreign locum gig for the wrong reason there’s an excellent chance the experience is going to be a dismal and unproductive affair for both the locum and hosting facility. The following is going to sound like either confused, contradictory inanity or great wisdom akin to the opening passage of A Tale of Two Cities. (It’s the wisdom one, if you’re curious.) Sometimes the most appealing expectations and noble impulses for taking an overseas locum stint- those that do make the move worth it- like adventure, experience and empathy for the less fortunate can be exactly the wrong reason for doing so.

To clarify this antithetical-seeming but actually very insightful truism, I’ll provide those problematic justifications in the following list and explanations regarding their dubiousness.

  1. This Is Going To Be a Great, Relaxing Vacation! As mentioned, taking locum tenens contracts is without a doubt an excellent great way to evaluate a working environment and branch of medicine. Doing so beyond your borders allows you to do so while fulfilling that starry-eyed aspiration to try your hand at rural medicine in a small French clinic or cardiology at an urban hospital in Japan. However, deciding to do so as an unwinding interlude after a stressful residency is a surefire route to disappointed burnout in a foreign nation. Idealizing the day to day obligations you’ll assume during your time in some charming distant clime as charming themselves by association is a mistake. While there’s no doubt that you will have free time to tour your new territory, it’s not just going to be a carefree holiday that’s underwritten by a medical agency.
  2. I Should Do This For My Resume. Again, there’s an excellent chance that your nonnative locum stretch will provide invaluable work experience, which never hurts in future interviews. That’s a bonus, certainly, but taking the leap chiefly as a resume-padding venture will never be worth it. In item number one I point out that your time working in a foreign country will be just as intense, demanding, time-consuming and involved as any other position, compounded by cultural unfamiliarity, possible language barriers, an extremely steep learning curve for a notoriously demanding career path and a general unfamiliarity with the way things are done. If this isn’t something you’re passionate about undertaking, find a curriculum vitae-gilding enterprise closer to home.
  3. It’s My Obligation To Give Something Back To The Less Fortunate. This cautionary admonition can be sort of a tricky one and one that relies to some degree on assumption. Far be it from me to suggest that people shouldn’t make this or any other decision based on sympathy, empathy or the implement of one’s conscience. The problem is- when a long term investment of time, emotion and finances of this sort is compelled by guilt, the decision-maker, upon arriving in a place of profound poverty, is prone to shock and disappointment. When the pervasive and systemic nature of much of the world’s poverty becomes more apparent the locum can come to feel overwhelmed at their inability to effect sufficient change or improvement. That can precipitate depression and a binding sense of futility. Sometimes a self-assumed inability to provide enough help and relief can even engender frustration and resentment against the local population.


That being said, if a transnational locum tenens appointment is sought out and realized with reasonable expectations, a sense of adventure and a willingness to work hard at something new, it should prove unforgettable. In fact, with the proper amount of thought and planning put into the move you have to chance to experience what will perhaps be one of the most exciting and rewarding careers moves you will ever make. While the above reasons have the potential to create backlash, the following are all positive.

  1. Put A Dent Into that Loan. Locum tenens contracts, especially those abroad will generally see that the traveling doctor not be responsible for any costs associated with travel, housing and sometimes even food. This is excellent news for your savings account.
  2. Master A New Language. If you have been itching to add a new language to your arsenal, a contract abroad can be the perfect spring board for such an undertaking. Taking a language course online and purchasing a few books is one thing but to be completely immersed in the culture is another.
  3. Increased Awareness To Different Forms Of Healthcare. Working in a foreign country with different views on medicine, different tactics for combating illness can lead to more well-rounded approach to medicine and treatment once you arrive back on home turf.


Adam Ghosh has over twenty years' experience as a researcher in the medical field. In that time he has worked with allergists and vascular surgeons, and everyone in between. Now he supplements his early retirement by contributing to Weatherby Healthcare.