• Dr. Jordan Vollrath

From squirrel picnics to fixing the system

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

Ever since graduating I have been working as a full-time locum physician. I love the flexibility it affords me and being able to book work around the rest of my life is amazing. In March when the pandemic hit home suddenly all the locum positions I had lined up were cancelled and the clinics I frequented slowed to a halt. It was already difficult enough to book locum work but the pandemic amplified this problem greatly. I literally spent an entire month building miniature wooden squirrel picnic tables in my garage just to keep busy. I felt like an imposter as friends and family assumed I must've been busy on the front lines, battling COVID in my hazmat suit. Meanwhile, I could hear the 7 pm healthcare cheering and clapping coming from downtown in between hammering nails into sections of rodent furniture.

A squirrel eating peanuts at a miniature wooden picnic table.
Mr. Nibbles enjoying his new patio set.

As time passed, I was again able to find some locum work. It was, however labour intensive and time-consuming doing so as the jobs were very sporadic. They seemed to come from the most random of places – passed down via word of mouth through several different people until they finally made their way to a locum with a serendipitously positioned gap in their schedule.

To me, this made no sense because the most common complaint you hear in clinics is how difficult it is to find locums. Why was it so hard to find work if every clinic was constantly on the prowl for locums? The further I looked into it the more I came to realize how widespread a problem this was for our whole system. There’s no effective central locum repository leaving an enormous disconnection between the abundance of locums and the clinics that need them.

A brief anecdote -

In May I received a text message asking me to do a brief rural locum. Unfortunately, I couldn't but they kindly requested that I ask around as the town was in a bit of a pinch. I posted it to Facebook and in less than 15 minutes I had received a reply from not one, but two locum physicians eager to make the 2.5-hour trek South from Calgary. I relayed their contact information back to the source. They were thankful, and we got to chatting a little bit as we had not spoken in quite a while... it turned out they didn’t even work down there anymore. They had in fact left that position and since moved way up to the Northwest Territories months ago and were reaching out as a favour for a friend.

What? Is this actually how our medical system operates? How far and through how many different people did this locum request need to travel before being fulfilled? How much time had to be delayed prior to being claimed instantly upon reaching its final destination? Its 2020 and this is actually how doctors get to where we need them. That's ridiculous. What proportion of locum requirements go unfilled because of this glaring inefficiency?

And no wonder we have such high rates of burnout - no one can take any time off. There is no such thing as a healthy work-life balance if we are constantly faced with the decision to either A) Cancel everyone and feel as if we've abandoned our patients, B) Burden our already overworked colleagues with our fit-ins, or C) Just show up to work when we shouldn't. Now that a simple runny nose equates to 14 days in quarantine - how are we supposed to respond effectively to a pandemic if this is how we staff our clinics?

There needed to be a better way, which is why a few months ago I gave up my mitre saw and nail gun to team up with the incredibly talented Dr. Maximilian Kerz. Together we set out to create Cherry Health - an easier, faster, centralized system for locum acquisition. Thankfully for me (and the rest of our medical community), he possessed the know-how and the technical ability to transform an idea into an actual solution.

Gone are the days of blindly hoping that you know somebody who knows someone who can fill in for you. Now, a locum request only takes a few seconds and no longer requires the involvement of your social network. You can even find a locum on short notice, making obtaining sick coverage an actual possibility. On top of that, you don't even have to be sick - you can just take guilt-free personal days whenever you need.

The ability to maintain a flexible schedule is honestly the best part about being a locum and the reason why so many people do it. How often do you encounter a burned-out locum? Cherry Health gives back that flexibility most family practitioners thought they gave up years ago.

If you have an amusing locum story of your own, please share it in the comments below!

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