The ups and downs of being a locum during the pandemic
Locum optometrist, Sammara Ahmed, on the instant variety that locuming provides her and realising she is valued during the pandemic
06 April 2021
Previous roles: Employed optometrist at a multiple
Based: Across south east London, Kent, Surrey and Oxford.
I decided to become a locum in 2018 because of the flexibility that it offers. At the time, I was recently married and wanted to change my work/life balance. My husband was working abroad, and we were not able to spend much time together. Locuming gave me the flexibility that I needed to change that.
While I’ve always loved this flexibility, the best thing about it really is the instant variety that it unlocks for you in what you get to see. When you work in one practice, you don’t realise how much you are stuck in one routine. You have the same equipment, the same testing times, and, sometimes, even the same patient types. Being a locum has allowed me to see how different practices run, how different people work and a broad demographic of patients, which I just don’t think you get when you work in one place.Throughout the pandemic, it has been very apparent just how vulnerable we are as locums. During the 12 months we have probably been one of the most affected groups. I have not had any help in terms of government support. As a locum, you take the risks that are associated with it.
The last 12 months have certainly been difficult at times. Work initially began slowing down in early February last year. Rather than practising four or five days a week, I was only doing two or three. Then the first lockdown was announced and all of the work that I had booked in was cancelled. I had a few months without any work, but after that, things started to look up. The industry began to bounce back.
I did have a few months of completely no work, but after that, things started to look up. The industry began to bounce back
I think there will always be a demand for locums. After the first lockdown, when the restrictions were lifted, practices had such a backlog to catch up on that there was suddenly so much work available.
It’s been a real roller coaster; it’s been up and down. The same thing happened with this third lockdown – there was a complete cancellation of all of my work. However, as the vaccination programme rolled out and people began to feel more comfortable attending practices, it began to pick up again. I have at times gone from having no work for two weeks to being booked up 12 days in a row.
Although there have been some really difficult times during the pandemic, I think it has made many people, myself included, realise that one of the most important things in life is to be in good health.
I have found it quite a privilege to be considered a key worker. To be able to go into practice and help people has been very rewarding. As a locum, there is a bit of ‘you come in, you do your work and you go,’ but going back into practices to locum during the pandemic has made me realise just how much I am valued, by patients and practice staff. I have seen patients who have had referrals missed, cataract surgery postponed, and glaucoma check-ups delayed, and to be there to support these people and make a difference has been humbling.
It has also made me realise how much I am appreciated by the stores that I work in. It has been a tough time for business owners as well as locums, and for them to welcome me back when they can means a lot. It demonstrates that even though you are a locum, you can still build up a relationship with a store, with the directors, with the staff and with the patients.
My advice to fellow locums is hold on, it has been a tough year
My most memorable moment as a locum was seeing a patient who found where I was practising. They asked me where I was working and travelled two and a half hours on a train to see me because she didn’t want anyone else to do her sight test. It shows that loyalty is not just with stores; it can be with patients too.
My advice to fellow locums is hold on, it has been a tough year. For new locums particularly, I’m sure it’s been even tougher as they will not have built up connections and therefore it can feel that there is just no work around. However, if you persevere, I’m sure that things will pick up. Be open-minded in order to build connections. Travel further than you may have liked and do not narrow yourself to particular practices. Let the industry pick itself up and naturally over time you will be able to build locuming around the life that you want, but now is the time to keep an open mind.
A day in the life of Sammara
Once in the testing room, I always check that the equipment is working and that I can log in to the systems that they use. I will also make sure that it’s all clean and that I’m comfortable using it.
1pm: I always go out for lunch. This ensures that I always step out and get some fresh air. I think this is really important to do because optometrists can be stuck in a small dark room for the majority of the day. So I will go for a walk, get a coffee and pick-up lunch and then go back to the staff room. While all day I will have been doing handovers, this gives me the opportunity to sit down, speak to staff and get to know them better.
5pm: Before leaving a practice, I double-check that I have packed up all of my equipment – I’ve left things such as my retinoscope behind before and it can be a long journey if you have to go back for it.
I also ensure that I have signed all of the GOS forms that need to be signed, and I leave my details in case I have missed something, or I am needed for something like a referral. Importantly, making sure that I leave my details also means that I can be easily contacted by a practice if they want to rebook me in the future.
Ad hoc: I try to book my diary quite far in advance as I don’t like to be in a position where I’m looking for work the week before. However, there will always be odd days that you aren’t booked up for and in these instances, I use recruitment apps, such as Locomotive, which I find very easy and effective to use.
- As told to Emily McCormick.