Are you one of the many physicians expected to retire soon? According to a 2021 report published by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), more than two of every five physicians will reach age 65 within 10 years. But of course, retirement isn’t driven by age alone; factors such as physician burnout and decreasing physician job satisfaction are likely to increase an already high volume of physician retirements projected in the coming years.
Recent data from a Jackson Physician Search and MGMA study supports the claim. In the survey, 43% of physicians said, over the past year, they had considered taking an early retirement and an October 2021 MGMA STAT poll found one in three medical practices saw a physician leave or retire early in 2021 due to burnout.
Physicians certainly have reason to feel burned out. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, physicians were dealing with long hours, administrative burdens, lack of autonomy, and productivity pressures. Like so many things, COVID-19 only intensified these existing problems. However, if burnout is the problem, is retirement really the solution? For some, the answer may be “yes,” but before you make this life-changing decision, you may want to ask yourself the following questions and consider a few physician retirement alternatives.
If My Work Circumstances Improved, Would I Still Want to Retire?
Many of the headlines about physician retirement aren’t focused on an aging physician workforce, but rather, how the stress of COVID-19 and other forces have increased physician burnout, resulting in an unexpected spike in retirements. Is burnout at the root of your retirement plans? If so, would you reconsider if your circumstances improved?
Consider Dr. J, an Emergency Medicine physician who spent his career working at a Manhattan hospital. He always felt his intense personality was well-suited to the high-stress job, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought the stress to a level even he found impossible to manage. Nevertheless, he powers through each day, triaging patients. Now, at just 54, he is considering retirement. Even if the worst of the pandemic is over, the way he feels about the job and the whole organization has changed. He has given everything to his work, and now, he simply has nothing left to give.
It’s understandable that Dr. J would feel this way. However, he may be making a decision based on the extreme circumstances of the past two years. Before he ends his career early, it is worth exploring the question, “If my circumstances improved, would I still want to retire?”
Dr. J may feel he’s been through too much to continue with his current employer. Retirement seems like the most logical option. After all, he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and thanks to smart financial planning, it’s a viable option. On the other hand, perhaps Dr. J simply needs time to recover from the trauma he’s endured in recent years. Instead of retirement, his employer may be willing to offer a sabbatical to give him time to rest and reflect on the positive aspects of practicing medicine. Management may also be open to making changes that would improve physician job satisfaction in the department and improve physician retention.
If your current circumstances are unlikely to improve, it may be time to look for a new physician job–perhaps in a rural location. According to a Rural Physician Recruitment study from Jackson Physician Search and Locum Tenens, “improved work-life balance” is the most common reason rural physicians say they decided to practice rural medicine. Rural physicians are also more likely to say their organization is “patient-focused.” The autonomy, flexibility, and slower pace of life reported by many rural physicians could be exactly what you need to renew your love for practicing medicine.
Alternative #1: Change Your Circumstances / New Physician Job
Approach your manager to discuss your feelings of burnout and propose options for improving current circumstances. If they are unable or unwilling to make changes, you may want to connect with a physician recruiter to learn about other physician jobs that might rekindle your desire to practice.
Would My Employer Support a Partial Retirement or Other Alternatives to Full Retirement?
According to a 2019 JPS retirement study, only 17% of physicians surveyed said they planned to take a full retirement, and nearly a third said they intended to continue working part-time. In the same study, administrators estimated 40% of their retiring physicians wanted to take full retirement. This indicates a disconnect between what physicians want and what their employers expect. However, in light of the physician shortage, most employers would be happy to take whatever level of work they can get from their physicians. This may be especially true in rural areas.
Consider Dr. G, a Family Medicine physician who has spent the last 20 years working in a rural hospital treating patients of all ages and ailments. He moved his family to the small community when his kids were young, but now, they’ve grown up and started their careers in bigger cities. As he nears retirement age, he and his wife discuss their plans to travel more and perhaps move to be nearer the kids. He knows it’s time to stop working so much, but is he ready to stop working altogether?
For Dr. G, a partial retirement seems like the ideal option, one that his employer may indeed be willing to entertain. Whether it means simply cutting his hours, job sharing, or adopting telemedicine, Dr. G should initiate a discussion with his employer to discuss how those options might work for them.
Alternative #2: Part-time Physician Job
Don’t be afraid to approach your employer about your desire to work less. They will likely be happy to hear you want to keep working in some capacity. Start the conversation early and keep an open mind as you discuss your options. If your current employer can’t provide what you need, enlist a national physician recruitment firm to help in your part-time physician job search.
What Will I Do With My Time Post-Retirement?
Physicians spend countless hours training to practice medicine, and once certified, they often devote 50-60+ hours per week to the job. If anyone has earned the right to put their feet up and relax in retirement, it’s physicians. And yet, this hard-working, high-achieving group often has a difficult time coming to a full stop after devoting so much time and energy to their work for so long.
Consider Dr. L, as Chief of Surgery at a busy suburban hospital, she can’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t working towards a goal–first medical school, then residency and fellowship, her first job, and then slowly climbing the ladder to her current position. She had achieved success at every step of her plan, and the next step, thanks to savvy financial planning, was retirement at 60. By retiring relatively early, Dr. L intends to really enjoy her retirement, but will she succeed with this plan too?
Though Dr. L may not admit it–she may not even be aware of it–it’s likely she holds some unconscious fears about what exactly “enjoying retirement” will look like for her. Before making the decision, she should think through exactly what she will do with her time post-retirement. Perhaps she has a plan for a “second act,” a business venture, teaching opportunity, or non-profit work. However, she might also consider keeping her license active so she can pursue locum tenens assignments or even medical mission work–abroad or in one of the many healthcare deserts across the US.
Alternative #3: Locum Tenens
Make sure you know what you need to do to keep your license active in the first years of full retirement. If or when the initial excitement of retirement wanes, you may want to explore locum tenens jobs through our sister company LocumTenens.com.
Retirement is a big decision and it’s never too early to start planning. Whether you’ve been dreaming about your retirement for years or you are just starting to think through the idea, a Jackson Physician Search Recruitment Consultant can help you understand your options as you transition to retirement. Contact us today.