Doctors leaving medicine: Why you should give up clinical medicine

Jul 15, 2019

The most recent post in our Make it Black & White series covered the reasons why physicians should continue to practice clinically in some manner – even after transitioning to a non-clinical career. But there are just as many reasons that it can make sense for doctors leaving medicine to give up their clinical work entirely.

Reasons for doctors leaving medicine to go “all in” with non-clinical work

You can justify leaving medicine with any of the points below. Doctors with several issues that apply to them should seriously consider devoting all their professional time to non-clinical work.

However, if any of these reasons are true for you, it certainly doesn’t mean that you must give up clinical medicine! All of these are hurdles that can be overcome if you have the determination.

You don’t enjoy it

Here at Look for Zebras, we’re all about career fulfillment. If you truly dislike clinical work, don’t force yourself to do it.

Obliging yourself to practice clinically when it’s not enjoyable could potentially:

  • Lead to burnout
  • Negatively affect your personal life and relationships
  • Decrease productivity in your nonclinical role

Be honest with yourself about the benefits you get from clinical work. If they are minimal or none, leaving clinical medicine may be a good call.

You have substantial experience or are nearing retirement

The more clinical experience you have, the less it matters that you continue to accrue more clinical experience. This is especially true for physicians in leadership positions who have gradually accumulated administrative responsibility over the years. The progression of your career in this type of case can often speak for itself.

Similarly, doctors nearing retirement may not benefit from continuing clinical work after taking a nonclinical position. A late-career physician has ample experience to draw from in order to solve problems, communicate with colleagues, and provide expertise.

If it’s unlikely that you’ll be job searching in the future, having recent clinical experience can be relatively unimportant.

You don’t plan to ever return to clinical medicine

It can make sense for early- and mid-career physicians to fully transition to nonclinical work, as well. This is true mainly for those who are confident that they’ll never return to clinical medicine. To be confident about this, you should typically already have experience in a nonclinical role and know that you enjoy it.

You should also be reasonably confident about the outlook for your nonclinical field or the job security for your type of position. It is important as well to be confident in your ability to transition to another type of nonclinical job.

Stability and flexibility are key here, as it’s difficult to know what the future will bring.

It’s logistically too challenging

Clinical work can be a logistical challenge for many reasons. These can be both professional and personal. Professionally, the hours or schedule required for clinical work in your specialty may not jive with your nonclinical job. On-call requirements can be demanding. Some types of specialists tend to work long shifts.

Certain nonclinical jobs can have erratic hours, frequent travel, or other obligations. These can make it difficult to commit to any type of clinical work shift. For example, management consulting is known for its long hours and busy travel schedule.

On a personal level, perhaps you have kids or an elderly parent to care for. Or you find it difficult to prioritize quality time with your spouse while simultaneously fitting in clinical work. It’s not worth keeping up your clinical skills if it means sacrificing relationships.

You physically cannot perform clinical work

Disabilities happen, unfortunately. But this doesn’t need to be a career-ender for most physicians. Going all-in with nonclinical work might be the best way to go for those with physical limitations.

Your professional history creates a barrier

Malpractice lawsuits, medical board disciplinary action, loss of privileges, and professional investigations can brutally interfere with one’s ability to land clinical work. Even if clinical work remains a possibility, the increased scrutiny, elevated insurance premiums, and other hassles can be a turn-off to continuing work as a clinician.

If a physical disability interferes with your medical practice, don’t consider this a failure. Rather, it’s an opportunity to fully transition to nonclinical work.

Because what you do with your medical degree is your choice

I’ve witnessed physicians unhappily remaining in clinical practice because they feel obligated to do so. By becoming physicians, we didn’t promise that we’d treat patients for a certain number of years or dedicate a minimum number of hours to the hospital wards. We paid for our training and can do with it what we want.

Having a purely nonclinical job may raise an eyebrow here and there, but that’s okay. You get to choose your own career path.

13 Comments

  1. Xrayvsn

    I 100% agree with this.

    There sometimes is a backlash when a doctor wants to retire early and leave medicine, with people saying you took a spot from a student in medical school who could have practiced medicine longer, etc.

    There is no way any doctor should feel obligated to society or anyone else but their family. We have sacrificed far too much to get an MD behind our name. We were not given it, we earned it. So it is up to us to choose whether we want to use it or not.

    I guarantee you that society/hospitals/etc do not care for your well being. They will replace you the moment someone less expensive comes along in cost cutting maneuvers. That is what is happening now as mid levels are starting to assume roles once only relegated to physicians. And of course there is AI coming down the pike that I think will drastically change a lot of specialties, and a lot for the worse.

    • L4Z

      Yes! Along those same lines, continuing to practice when you’re truly burned out puts your patients at risk.

  2. Gershon Perry

    Some of us have their experience to share and that benefits the patients and the fellow. Without us, the fellows are experimenting and the patient are up a creek… you all know the rest.

    • L4Z

      I agree with you. Those doctors who enjoy practicing should continue to do so, if they’re able. Someone who dislikes it, though, is probably not going to be a great teacher. Trainees deserve great teachers.

  3. Sarah

    Yes, we worked hard and paid a lot for our educations. Still, half the cost of medical education and training is borne by taxpayers. What is our obligation to them?

    • L4Z

      We have no obligation to them.

    • Brittany McCreery

      So nice to read this as an early career physician that switched to a non-clinical job and got some pretty rash responses to my choice from colleagues and family members. There is a need for people in non-clinical roles that understand the work of a physician and I think my MD makes me much better at my non-clinical job than someone without that background — and the practicing physicians I work with agree. I think people should be respected for whatever career decision they make whenever they decide to make it.

      The question of taxpayer subsidies towards training and the public obligation is an interesting one. But, when I think about the enormous cost of a medical school education that today’s grads are most often paying back through loans to the federal government at a higher than prime interest rate coupled with the low wages paid to trainees relative to the hours and critical nature of the job, then I’m inclined to say you’ve paid your debt back to society. Not to mention non-clinical roles can still create a ton of value to the public.

      • L4Z

        “Not to mention non-clinical roles can still create a ton of value to the public.” Yes! Great point.

  4. Albert M. DeFabritus

    What do you all think defines a nonclinical job? I don’t know what I am going to do after I retire if I don’t practice clinical medicine.

    • L4Z

      I recently posted an article that breaks down nonclinical jobs into 5 rough categories in a different way than they are usually categories (which tends to be by industry or job title). Check it out here.

  5. Roberta Beals

    It is great to see that there is support for non-clinical career options!
    I agree. Physicians should not be limited to only one career. It is your journey. Make the most of it and be Happy.

  6. Dd

    Interesting. Many non-clinical jobs can greatly improve clinical work (R&D, IT, even Admin …). I think most of us are overtrained/underpaid for routine clinical work. Our skills are better utilized for Zebras! And for discovery.

  7. Stan Sack

    Thanks for a relatively positive article weighing the pros and cons of leaving clinical medicine. The author did leave out one thing that comes into play, especially for those of us in the lower paying, primary-care specialties: the cost of maintaining credentials. State boards and other entities nickel-and-dime so many fees out of us (I mean, really, why should I have to pay 250 dollars every year for some neurologic compensation fund?) that the cost-effectiveness of maintaining credentials to practice is questionable at times.

    Ultimately, I left a few years short of “retirement age” (whatever that is) to do some freelance writing. I ultimately found a position with no nights, weekends, call or hospital work which I enjoy and which drives my writing, since I write on medical topics. However, if it ever comes to it that I make less than I’m spending to maintain my certifications (plus the wear and tear on my car, since the position is a distance from my home), then I am done!

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