Moving on from medicine

5 ways to know you are ready for a career change

It may be that the golden days of practicing medicine how we were trained have come and gone for some of us.


Medicine is a field with an unprecedented burnout rate. Constant demands, not enough sleep, feeling no sense of making positive change and not being able to impact patients as you would like, are just some of the reasons we might question our continued commitment to clinical practice. It may be that the golden days of practicing medicine how we were trained have come and gone for some of us.

When I began to have serious burnout issues after 20 years in practice, I asked myself if I was done practicing medicine. I thought about how I felt when I was taking care of patients on both difficult and enjoyable days. The fact was that everything was making me feel crazy and that even a good day was stressful because of too many demands and not enough help. I consulted many websites and articles about career change for physicians. The end result in my journey of self-discovery was that while I enjoyed practicing medicine, I could only tolerate the administrative burden in small bites if I was going to provide the level of care I felt was needed.

At the beginning of my career change process, I thought that if I could do other things to get a break from the daily grind, I would be able to keep a practice. I looked for small projects and locum tenens work that took me outside of my practice for short periods and did this for several years. Though I added new skills, it was not enough to keep the frustration at bay.

 After looking at career websites and talking to my hospital’s CEO, I realized I needed a new skill set that would help me qualify for new jobs. My CEO recommended that an additional degree might open me up to more opportunities. I explored many options and ultimately chose to begin an MBA program, which I felt most closely aligned with my overall interests and life goals. I could have chosen a Healthcare Executive Certificate in my program, but I realized completing the extra six classes required for the full MBA would be worth the effort. I was also accepted into a Healthcare Policy Fellowship sponsored by the AOA, which I completed within another year.

I also asked my colleagues who were near the end of their clinical practice or the start of retirement what made them take the plunge and make a career change. The most common responses were:

  1. Frustration: Every day was a marathon of keeping frustration at a manageable level.
  2. Trust: No longer believing that the system would change to help me.
  3. Profitability: Going backwards, with more work for less money.
  4. Culture: The politics overtook the job, being treated like a commodity.
  5. Overwork: Always being asked to do more, no amount of effort was ever enough, increasing EHR requirements.

Since COVID, known by some now as “the great retirement,” we have seen many people give up stressful jobs to work part-time or become self-employed. I spoke to over 100 physicians about their plans over several years in each phase of my journey. While some of my colleagues retired or went to new clinics with hopes the grass would be greener, many shifted to other careers such as hospital leadership, medical-related business administration, medical review for insurance companies, practice consulting and expert witness review.

Along with burnout, the need for financial freedom and elimination of toxic work situations has made other work more attractive. The physicians over 65 that I spoke with were more likely to just retire as Medicare benefits and Social Security distributions became available and they were able to take retirement distributions without penalty. I’ve heard comments such as “medicine is more paperwork than patient care,” and “everyone is getting paid but me,” and my personal favorite: “Dr. Google is now one of my partners.”

Career and identity

The choice of whether to retire or find other work was impacted most be each of my colleagues’ outlook on practicing medicine. For example, if your identity as an adult person is tied to your being a physician, you might miss it more. Or, if medicine was your family, and your life revolved around your clinical responsibilities and you rarely passed them off to others, you might be more inclined to find a secondary career based on skills you developed during your clinical practice years.

For some of my colleagues, medicine was not a huge part of how they identified as an adult. These colleagues tended to retire altogether and do volunteer work, travel and practice hobbies that kept them busy and happy. Unfortunately, due to delayed retirement for financial reasons, I heard through friends that some of my colleagues who retired later enjoyed less than 10 years of retired life afterward. Looking at financial projections for a recession kept some in practice far longer than they planned.

Many physicians of more recent generations are looking for a better work-life balance after giving years of hard work to clinical medicine. Part-time work and job-sharing are gaining popularity as companies are forced to deal more creatively with physician shortages. It will be necessary to determine if you need to have a strong benefits package when you make a job change or if your spouse can provide those benefits, as some jobs will provide minimum or no benefits.

Finding expanded career options takes time, work and often additional training. Sometimes, you can be lucky enough to be tapped for new opportunities or advancement in an organization you are already participating in. In most cases, physicians will require a mindset change to maintain career fulfillment and enjoyment during and after their transition.

Getting started and considering a timeline

The timeline for changing careers can easily range from one to two years, with each small change you make bringing new networking opportunities and a transition period. It can be difficult to make a major career change when employers are typically looking for employees who bring prior experience to the table. Volunteering your time to oversee a project, manage others or get involved in decision-making and financial decisions can be great ways to open the door for new opportunities.

Resumes for business look much different than physician CVs, as they focus on tasks achieved as predictors of future success. For example, to be a chief medical officer you would need to be proficient in quality measures and the language used to measure them. Courses in quality review would be helpful to start you on your path, as would be being part of your hospital quality committee. Being involved in peer review and serving as a chief of a department will help you qualify for medical director positions at hospitals and insurance companies, as medical directors do second-level care review involving in-house clinical guidance tools.

Where you fit depends on your interests, time commitment and salary requirements. Entry-level administrator positions may pay significantly less but require full-time work. It may be necessary to take on a part-time clinical job while you evaluate your interest in non-clinical work. Wherever you choose to make a start, being a physician administrator can bring a wealth of clinical experience you can use in your new role and may give you a distinct advantage over those who are solely business-trained. My current role as the CEO for a federally qualified health clinic system was presented to me for these reasons and is the culmination of nearly 10 years of preparation.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

Physician burnout and the transition to nonclinical careers

Medicine as your Second Life: What happens when the game ends?

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