Background: Locum doctors provide cover during normal working hours for GPs absent due to holidays, sickness, maternity leave or for educational purposes. However, there is little information on the extent of the use of locums or of GPs' perception of their services.
Objectives: To examine the level of use of locum doctors by GPs, the ease of recruitment and satisfaction with their services.
Methods: A postal survey of all general practices in one of the six health regions in England was carried out. Logistic regression analysis was used to examine the independent effects on locum use of practice size and type of area, source of recruitment and GPs' satisfaction with their services.
Results: A total of 935 (80.6%) general practices responded. Locum GPs were employed by 81.7% of practices in the previous 12 months. Two-thirds of practices reported problems obtaining locum cover, especially at short notice and for holiday periods. One-fifth of practices employing a locum in the previous 12 months were dissatisfied with the locum.
Conclusions: There are high demands for, but a considerable shortage of, locum doctors in general practice. Educational and other initiatives for GPs may contribute to increased demands for locum cover. Difficulties in recruitment may be reduced by measures to improve the conditions of employment for doctors working as locums on a longer term basis. New codes of practice for employing locums may increase satisfaction with locum services.