Guidance and advice on working as a locum

Hugo Richardson
Having graduated from Bristol in 2007, my professional life began in a busy four-vet mixed practice in Taunton, Somerset. After 18 months, I was keen to pursue a career in wildlife conservation, and applied for the Masters programme in Wild Animal Health the Royal Veterinary College and the Institute of Zoology. Embarking on the course meant that I was lucky enough to be able to move back home with my parents in London.

During the Masters, I started doing the occasional weekend and evening locum job to pay my way. Towards the end of the course, I realised that I enjoyed this style of working, and so instead of going back into general practice – while waiting for that elusive wildlife job to appear – I became a full-time locum.

Why become a full-time locum, I hear you say. Well, if you are happy with your job, have a great boss, plenty of holiday and great pay, then there is no need to consider being a locum. If, on the other hand, you are happy taking sole charge, but hate being able to take only 25 days' holiday a year, feel that you want to be paid appropriately, have a huge student loan to pay off, and have developed some expensive hobbies along the way, then being a locum could be for you.

Who can become a locum?

Anybody with a veterinary degree, from day 1 after qualifying, to someone with 50 years' experience, can do locum work. However, most employers will want you to have at least two years' experience, and to know that you are competent with the majority of general practice procedures. I would suggest this to mean having worked for a couple of years in a reasonably busy small animal practice, covering a range of medical and surgical cases. Having your professional development phase signed off is a good start, but I would recommend a bit more than that as being necessary. Being competent at bitch spays and the occasional rabbit spay is a must, and having a reasonably good knowledge of most of the medicines on the pharmacy shelf is also useful.

The advantages of being a locum

The biggest advantage to being a locum is that you are working for yourself. Being self-employed means there is no boss to suddenly demand that you work that extra weekend shift last thing on a Friday, and no need to desperately try swapping shifts on your rota months ahead of a friend's party. As a locum, if you want a holiday...take it, for as long or as short as you like.

Hugo Richardson in Nepal
Anybody with a veterinary degree, from day 1 after qualifying, to someone with 50 years' experience, can do locum work

You also get to work up cases as you see fit. Most practices are happy to order in any medications that the locum likes to use, and are keen to see how they do things, whether or not this is different from the way they are used to doing it – offering a chance for some mutual learning. Oh, and the pay is better – much better.

The disadvantages of being a locum

  • Working on your own means that there is no-one else to ask in an emergency.
  • Being self-employed means that you have to go out and actively look for work, either using an agency or by sending your CV to practices.
  • You may have days or weeks where you don't have any work booked. People can and do ring up at the last minute to cancel work (but they also ring up last minute to see if you can work).
  • You may have to travel away from where you live for days at a time.
  • You will need to get an accountant, or become good at filling in tax returns, to avoid a tricky conversation with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

How to go about it

First, you need to decide whether to arrange things yourself or to register with a locum agency. Agencies manage your accounts and invoices, for which they charge a fee. Personally, I feel that if I've earned the money then I want to spend it, but some prefer having an agency to manage their accounts. I would suggest signing up with an agency initially. As time goes on, more and more of your jobs come by word of mouth, but I reckon this takes about six months or so.

"As time goes on, more and more of your jobs come by word of mouth"

Being self-employed means that you have to manage your own tax and accounting. I would recommend using an accountant for the first couple of years; the UK has a notoriously convoluted and complex tax system, which changes all the time, and nobody needs the hassle of being on the wrong side of HMRC because they filled in a form incorrectly.

Reference sources

As a locum, you need access to some good books, as you will often be on your own. The BSAVA's manuals are particularly useful, and of these I would recommend ‘Canine and Feline Emergency and Critical Care’ and ‘Canine and Feline Anaesthesia and Analgesia’. Also, Theresa Fossum's ‘Small Animal Surgery Textbook’ (also known to me as ‘the bible’) is a text no locum should be without. Other than that, Google is a good resource, and one through which you can often get access to journals online; although you need to weed out the crazy articles.

Finally, as a locum I always get asked, ‘But what about those dreadful cases of gastric dilation-volvulus’? Rest assured, most cases that come through the door are not emergencies; probably as much as 98% of what you see will be routine – vomiting dogs, cat bite abscesses, and so on. However, you have to be prepared to manage a road traffic accident or crashing dog/cat. If you follow basic principles you won't go far wrong. If, however, you do get a GDV to deal with, take a deep breath and reach for ‘the bible’.

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