“Upskilling always helps”
Pete Sharma explains how prioritising learning has helped him thrive as a self-employed locum
16 August 2022
Location: Taplow, Buckinghamshire
Locum for: Seven years.
When I started as a locum, I wish I had known…
That there was more than enough work to go around. When I first started, I was overbooking. I got a bit trigger happy: if anyone offered work, even if it was really far away – I booked everywhere. I found myself working six or seven days a week in different areas, which was good when it first started, but then you easily get worn down. I wish I’d known there was a lot more work around locally, especially in the areas I'm working in now.
I realised this when…
I started joining locum agencies. There’s also a Vision Express app, a Boots app, a Specsavers app, and a lot of websites. Once I started using them, I realised they were able to get me work a lot closer to my home. Suddenly I wasn’t overbooking; I was less tired.
I realised this probably after a year of locuming, and travelling around. It took me a bit of time, but once I started building more relationships with companies and agencies, work-life balance got a lot easier.
The event that made me understand this was…
The agencies that started offering me work always asked where I lived, and would let me know when they had work near me, sometimes ten minutes down the road. Then it was about getting myself through the doors and building the relationships. I’d look out for the odd day where there was maybe a shift five minutes down the road. I do one shift, and build up my reputation with that practice.
For the first few hours, every time I’m in a new place, everything going smoothly is all I can hope for
As a locum, if you do a decent job and happily talk to the staff, you find that the managers always end up calling you back. I think the first couple of years I was building up my reputation, just working hard, turning up on time, following all the procedures, and being nice to everybody. Once the reputation is there, you’re always going to get calls when work is available.
Locuming has helped me because…
It has given me a better work-life balance. Working closer to home means I can work fewer days if I need to. I don’t have to book too far in advance. There’s always plenty of work available from websites, agencies, and even from messages and locum groups on WhatsApp. There’s a lot of work out there, so you just have to keep calm and work will always come to you.
My biggest locum challenge is…
One of the biggest challenges I find is when I go to a new independent, or a new store I haven’t gone to before. There is always going to be new equipment, and new testing charts, and sometimes you’re not familiar with the equipment.
I find with the first few hours in some of the new stores, it takes time to find out how the equipment works and how the staff are going to be. You might fall behind in a clinic. Sometimes it can be quite daunting, especially if you’ve got an elderly patient and they’re waiting, and you can't get your head around the equipment.
I’m always studying something on the side. Locum life has let me do that
I always tell myself to test the eyes, check their health; do my normal procedure. As long as you know your basic skills, and as long as we know how to test eyes, which we do, the rest will catch up. For the first few hours, every time I’m in a new place, everything going smoothly is all I can hope for.
The advice I’d give to new locums is…
I’ve started going in a week before my first shift, to visit the store, work out what the equipment is like, and what their system is. An independent I’m starting at soon has a brand new optical coherence tomography machine (OCT), for example, and I’m going to go in and play around with that, so that when I start I’ll know exactly how that particular model works and it’ll be a smoother day.
If the store is a bit further away, I give them a call to ask what equipment they have, what the hours are, what they expect me to do in advance. I gain the benefit in that I know what they want from me, and it shows them that I’m keen.
I feel more confident that way, because I know what’s going to happen on the actual testing day, but also the staff feel happier because they think, “this locum is coming into our store. He’s keen; he wants to know everything in advance.” Everybody benefits, that way.
Practices can make life easier for locums by…
One of the practices I was in a few months ago had a locum checklist in my room when I arrived, and I found that benefited me. Sometimes we don’t know what the protocols are, for example how to refer a patient in a different county. Locum packages can help – if they give us a checklist, we know how to log in, what the referral criteria is, and maybe basic things, like what they expect of the locums for the day. Do they expect contact lens checks; do they want you to pre-screen for them? Do they want us to help us out on the shop floor, if they’re busy? Little things like that. A protocol checklist – one of the stores did that, and it helped me because I knew straight away, at 9am, what they wanted of me.
One change I’ve seen whilst working as a locum is…
Upskilling has become increasingly important. Over time I've upskilled and taken on Minor Eyes Conditions Service (MECS) and independent prescriber (IP) qualifications. I've done my MiSight training. Even little things, like if you’re OCT trained, can help. The number of locums that are not happy to do OCT because they haven’t had practice is quite high.
So, if you’ve upskilled and you’re certified in a lot of things, that helps. Over the years I’ve found that on some of the apps, they asked what you are certified in. If you have training in things like OCT and MiSight contact lenses, you tend to be called more for shifts. Upskilling always helps.
My favourite thing about being a locum is…
The flexibility. I like to do a few days of practice work, and in the other few days I like to upskill. I’m always studying something on the side. Locum life has let me do that. In 2020 I did my MECS; in 2021 I did my professional certificate in glaucoma, and this year I'm doing my IP.
If I need to catch up on work, I can do 10 days in a row if I want to. There are no limits
It’s given me the flexibility to take time off and study on the side. I can take a lot of time off, and have a few breaks in between, which I always find is harder when you are employed, especially in the summer when practices get busy. Now, I can take the whole month off. The work life balance, I find, is better because I can organise days in advance, but then if I need to catch up on work, I can do 10 days in a row if I want to. There are no limits.
Being self-employed has let me work with all the multiples and all the different independents in the area, too. It builds up your experience because you’re working with different teams every day, and different systems. I work for all the multiples, the main names. But I like to do a lot of independent work on the side as well. Some days, I’m seeing 20 patients a day; at independents I’m seeing far fewer than that. I get the whole range. I like to try different things all the time. I don’t just stick to one place very often, but I have probably covered most of the multiples within the last seven years or so.
Locuming has made my communication better; it made my timekeeping better, working under pressure in different stores, with different management and different teams. I’m not in one place. I find I’m working with different people, some of whom I now call my friends, all the time.
My kitbag essential is…
I’ve kept a blue Volk lens since my pre-reg. It’s the only thing I’ve kept that I haven't updated or changed. I’ve taken it with me to every store for the last seven years; I’ve always had it with me.
Lead image: Taplow, Buckinghamshire, where Pete Sharma works as a locum optometrist