Getting Learning Opportunities as a Locum Doctor in 2023
So you’ve decided you want to time out of training to do locum work. But how can you keep learning and developing in your time as a locum? How can you improve your clinical skills and knowledge, so that you're well placed for future job or training applications?
In this article, we’ll discuss some useful tips and advice to help you make sure your time working as a locum doctor is still contributing to your professional development.
Identifying the Challenges
It’s true, that finding learning opportunities as a locum doctor requires being more proactive when compared to being a trainee.
However, many of the perceived challenges are more fiction than fact.
Here are some of those perceived challenges, which you might have heard before, and our take on them...
“People who locum instead of focussing on their training aren’t committed to their careers.”
It’s no longer the case that in order to progress to specialty training, you have to demonstrate your commitment by going straight into it without taking any time out.
In fact, a larger proportion of junior doctors now choose to take time out of training before committing to specialty training. This is particularly true for competitive specialties like radiology, surgery and anaesthetics, where the extra year can be used to boost your specialty application with further experience and portfolio activities.
If you can explain how you’ve developed as a clinician, what extra experience and skills you’ve gained during your time as a locum, and how this relates to the person specification, taking a year out shouldn’t hold you back in any way at specialty applications or interviews.
“I can't get involved with any projects as a locum.”
There are plenty of projects you can get involved with that show that you’re developing desirable skills, and that demonstrate commitment and enthusiasm for a specialty.
And these don’t have to take up much of your time! In fact, as locum doctor, you have more time to make the most of your CV-building opportunities because you’re not tied into a full-time rota or annual leave restrictions.
Further on in this article, we’ll discuss examples of some of the projects you could get involved with (some of which you could do in just a day).
“You need to do a clinical fellowship or Trust Grade job to get access to learning opportunities.”
It's a myth that doctors in fellowship or Trust Grade jobs get significantly more access to teaching than locums.
Contracts for these roles will state that you’re there for service provision first, so there isn't significantly better access to these opportunities than a locum - so you're not truly at a disadvantage with locuming compared to Trust grades or clinical fellows, and you get the pay and flexibility benefits too as a locum.
In all cases, you just need to ask to get access to learning! We'll explain more on how to achieve this below.
Getting Learning Opportunities as a Locum Doctor
As a locum doctor, the onus falls on you to find learning opportunities.
Here are our top tips for maximising your learning opportunities:
🧾 Make a Plan
We strongly recommend making a plan or a tick-box list of what you’ll need to achieve during your time as a locum.
If you’re locuming to gain experience in a competitive specialty before a training application: what do you need to strengthen your specialty training application? If you're just planning to locum for now: what skills do you want to develop, both clinical and non-clinical?
This is especially important for specialty training applications that require the submission of a physical or virtual portfolio as part of your application. For example, in Core Surgical Training and Internal Medicine Training, you will be awarded a certain number of ‘points’ for submitting evidence of activities desired by the specialty.
These activities could include:
👉 Audits & Presentation
👉 Writing up case reports on interesting cases
👉 Research projects
👉 Getting published
👉 Attending courses and conferences
👉 Presenting at local meetings, like Morbidity & Mortality (M&M) meetings or case reviews
👉 Teaching opportunities like departmental, medical student teaching, OSCE examining, or running courses
We won’t go into this further but you should aim to learn what activities will score you points within your specialty of interest and make a plan on getting as many as you can within the year. This should be what guides your pursuit of learning opportunities.
If you want to learn more about specialty application portfolios, you can find more information in HEE’s guidance here.
🏃 Be Proactive
We mentioned this earlier - this is likely the single most important thing you can do.
Let your colleagues in the department where you're locuming know exactly what you’re looking to get involved. They will usually be very supportive in helping you find learning and CV-building projects to get involved with.
This is easier if you’re on a long-term locum placement, so you will be working in a department for a while. They'll see that investing time into you will be in their best interest.
There are also huge number of Quality Improvement (QI) activities that go on in every department that usually do not have enough volunteers to help with them! So offer your services to the audit or QI lead for any of these or any projects that you might have come up with yourself whilst working in the department.
So whether it’s learning to suture, getting experience in Resus, or running a teaching session for Medical Students… being able to do these competently will benefit your department. So just ask!
💻 Keep an ePortfolio and Print Out Paper Copies of CBD, DOPS & Mini-CEX Forms
You’ll be familiar with ePortfolios from your time as a trainee, but it’s worth highlighting how incredibly useful they can be for collecting and storing all your collected evidence of your learning opportunities.
We recommend using MedAll, this is one of the only free ePorfolio’s out there and the others can be quite expensive. However, if you’re registered with the bank at the Trust you did your F2 at, then you can normally have your trainee ePortfolio extended into your locum year.
We’d also advise you to carry a few paper copies of CBD, DOPS, Mini-CEX and Feedback forms. They make it easier to collect evidence of impromptu learning and teaching opportunities, such as in your short-term shifts at a different hospital to where you normally work. As you won’t be able to chase them for an e-signature when you leave.
🎓 Attend Courses & Conferences
Whilst you’ll have more time to attend these as a locum doctor, medical courses and conferences can be incredibly expensive and cost hundreds of pounds each. However, there are a small number of courses out there that are free and will count towards points for your specialty portfolio.
For example “The National Catheter Education Programme” and “ASiT: Preparing For a Career in Surgery” are both free and count towards CST applications.
📖 Study and Complete Membership Exams
As a locum doctor, you’ll have more time to study and prepare for exams like the MRCP and MRCS. These are not only helpful for your specialty training application but can help you appear more attractive as a locum, helping you pick up more shifts and maybe higher rates.
When factored in with the experience you’ve gained within a specialty, this may open the door for long-term SHOs to work as SpRs within the department. Providing both you and your consultants are happy with this of course. If you want to read more about how to progress from a locum SHO to locum as an SpR, check out our article here.
Please bear in mind that some specialties have placed time restrictions for completing membership exams. Doing these too late, or too early, may reduce the number of points you are awarded, and in some cases may even acquire you none. So make sure to research carefully!
The Need to Apply to Specialty Training in Future
Taking a year out of training, or more, is no longer seen as a disadvantage for specialty training. In fact, as we’ve discussed above, there can be many advantages to your application from taking time out to explore your specialty in more depth.
However, you do need to be careful and read the guidelines on how much experience you can have in a particular specialty before you apply to CT1/ST1 level. For example, in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, you can only have up to 24 months’ experience before starting ST1 (not including Foundation modules), otherwise they expect you to complete the ST1/ST2 competencies and apply at ST3 level instead.
Taking a year out also gives you the opportunity to try out a different deanery that you may not have worked in before, if you’re thinking of preferencing that area for specialty training. This means you can confirm you want to live in the area, as well as having the benefit of preferencing your hospitals and rotations based on an informed decision rather than guess-work.
This also allows you the chance to make connections with consultants in your preferred region and specialty, so you’re able to build relationships with senior mentors, or even meet the Training Programme Director for the deanery, who can all advise you on maximising your application points and preparing for interviews.
Deciding Not to Apply to Specialty Training
There are many doctors who try locuming, or other work outside the NHS, and decide that starting specialty training isn’t actually for them.
“Career locums” are an example of this, where doctors work as long-term locums and choose not to enter training. They can often continue to progress in seniority despite not being in a training programme, as long as they can show that they meet the competencies for the level they’re working at.
If you decide to go this route, you can still change your mind at a later time and choose to re-enter training. You can sometimes also use the experience you’ve gained locuming as time spent towards your training, as long as you can show you’ve achieved the competencies expected for each level.
We've written some further articles about progressing to more senior grades as a full-time locum doctor. Check out this article about progressing from a locum SHO to an SpR, and this one about the CESR pathway to becoming a Consultant.
Our Top Tips
1️⃣ Plan what learning objectives you want to hit throughout the year to maximise your specialty-application. Use this to stay on track.
2️⃣ Be keen and get involved. Make sure everyone knows what you’re looking to achieve.
3️⃣ Be prepared to give up a bit of spare time in exchange for a great project if you need to.
4️⃣ Use the opportunity to make contacts for advice or mentoring, and try out regions you’re interested in for specialty training.
5️⃣ If you want to continue locuming, look into your options for progression to more senior grades (start here).
If you follow the tips above, you should be able to make the most of your time locuming and build the career you want from the experience!
This article is part of a wider series of resources and guides that are designed to support you as a locum doctor, covering areas such as getting your first job, managing your finances, understanding your rights, and many more. Visit our Locum Doctor Hub for everything you need to know about locuming.
Additionally, if you're considering an F3 year, you might also find it useful to look at our comprehensive set of guides to ensure your F3 year is a success. These guides cover everything from initial planning, options for moving abroad, help with finding work, and tips for making the most of the experience. Click here to visit our F3 Resource Hub to explore the full list of guides and articles.
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