There’s a tendency among physicians who are considering leaving clinical medicine to feel that they’re not adequately prepared or lacking the appropriate skill set for the new work.
Sure, new skills and knowledge are probably needed. This is true of any job change. But people change jobs all the time – in every field.
Even if you’ve spent your entire career to date in a clinical setting, you’ve acquired and used skills that are vital for a non-clinical career – even one that is only tangentially related to medicine.
1 Asking the right questions
Asking the right questions is something we all began working on during the first year of medical school. This primarily took the form of patient interviews. We’ve been taught to ask open ended questions in an effort to get the patient to unknowingly reveal the diagnosis to us. We practiced asking about the elements of the chief complaint – location, severity, timing, quality, associated symptoms, etc. We were told to start off the visit with “What brings you in today?” and end it with “Is there anything else you wanted to discuss today?” (I admit to leaving out this last one depending on how talkative my patient is and how full my waiting room is!)
These specific questions may not be relevant in a non-clinical role, but the general concept is: to get to the heart of a problem or truly understand a client’s concern, we need to ask the right questions.
You already know how to do this. You know that asking leading questions rarely pulls the full truth out of someone. You know that when you assume things you make an ass out of you and an ass out of me.
The challenge in a non-clinical role is developing your new set of key questions. This time it’s for clients and coworkers, instead of for patients. The methods and phrases you use for a fruitful conversation will depend on the field you’re in and the problem you’re dealing with, though your years of interviewing patients and figuring out how to obtain useful information from them will serve you well.
2 Teaching yourself and keeping up with the field
If you’ve ever billed Medicare – and even if you haven’t – you’re well aware of rapid pace at which changes take place in our healthcare system. There are frequently adjustments to coding rules, policies, and programs. Once we get used to one payment model, another one is in the works. Medicare may lie toward the far end of the spectrum, but the majority of organizations in medical-related fields experience rapid change. One reason is the availability of new data and research findings. Medical practice changes as the evidence-base evolves.
New research leads to new evidence, which leads to new guidelines, which leads to new practice patterns, focal points, and policies.
Let’s touch on a couple of examples in the non-clinical space: pharma and medical writing. Pharmaceutical and medical device companies experience changes as a result of the development lifecycle. Competing companies begin to develop similar products, manufacture me-too drugs, or establish themselves within a therapeutic area that has demonstrated success for their competitors. Generics quickly become available when a patent expires. Companies need to keep churning drugs through their pipeline to counteract this. Moreover, even a marginal difference in efficacy or safety (or even marketing strategy!) can change prescribing habits.
In medical communications, the elements of good quality writing, grammar, and sentence structure are here to stay. However, a career area as seemingly benign as medical writing is subject to rapid change. Going back to pharmaceuticals and medical devices for a moment, this industry drives a vast amount of medical writing needs. Journal manuscripts, patient education materials, needs assessments, and continuing education modules, to name a few. These are most frequently commissioned by medical product companies, and sometimes by organizations that are funded by or hired by medical product companies. So medical writing must keep up with new research, new evidence, new guidelines, and new practice patterns.
Technology also drives change in writing. This has resulted from:
- The increasing importance of social media in spreading a message or marketing a service
- A transition from written material to video (such as YouTube) and podcasts
- A need for immediate information via frequent publications or push notifications
Medical writing is not immune to these.
3 Rolling with the punches
In an industry that is dynamic, we end up making mistakes and finding ourselves in disagreement with colleagues or patients. Perhaps you’ve been name in a lawsuit. Did it cause you give up on medicine altogether? I doubt it. Sure, it’s a major pain in the glutes and results in forever having to check off the “Yes” box and provide an explanation on all your credentialing paperwork for the rest of your life. But in most cases it’s not an impasse.
Maybe you’ve had a patient get angry with you, and even leave your practice because of it. Or a sizeable bill that was denied by the insurance company. Or political problems within your organization that left a bitter taste in your mouth.
You roll with these punches. I don’t mean that you continue the very same work with a smile on your face as though you were completely unphased. Sometimes the force of a punch is strong enough that you change the way you’re doing things. An even stronger punch might cause you to spruce up your resume and seek a new position. But regardless, you adapt. Sometimes it’s best to do so quietly and without ruckus, and to save your frustration for when you get home and your spouse asks how your day was.
And sometimes a punch warrants punching back. If I may, I’d like to bring in another clichéd idiom that fits in nicely here: choose your battles. As healthcare providers, if there’s an issue we feel strongly about, we take a stance. We advocate for our profession and our patients. Every job comes with punches, and you already know how to roll with them.
4Pleasing multiple stakeholders
Ah, stakeholders. A buzzword we’ve all been hearing lately. As a clinician, you know about pleasing multiple stakeholders all too well. Patients are probably the group on your mind most often. After all, they’re the ones we’re caring for. They’re the reason we went into medicine. But there’s also:
- Family members
- Insurance companies
- Hospital systems and departments
- Specialists and consultants
- Accreditation and certification organizations such as the Joint Commission
You may not think of them as “stakeholders,” but they certainly are. Many of our actions and decisions are influenced by these groups – their priorities, their recommendations, their orders. Their threats.
You’re used to being pulled in different angles by various stakeholders, and it’s a similar situation in a nonclinical setting. Some of the groups are the same, but there may also be:
- Boards of directors
- The general public
- The media
- Elected officials
- Advocacy groups
- Funding agencies
- Community, state, and national organizations
The list goes on, and varies depending on the field in which you’re working. The techniques for dealing with stakeholders remain about the same, though. Engage them. Find out their priorities and concerns. Determine the underlying reason each stakeholder matters – is it money? Is it power? Their reputation? Know what outcome they expect. Interface with company management, sell-side analysts, competitors, customers and other industry contacts.
You’ve probably had days with jam-packed patient loads that make you feel like you do all the work yourself. I understand the feeling, but it’s probably not true. On a typical inpatient unit, a provider delegates work to nurses, radiology technicians, phlebotomists, therapists, dietitians, administrative assistants, students and residents, consulting services, case managers, and others. There is a lot we do as physicians, but there’s a lot we don’t do as well. I don’t think I placed a single IV last time I worked in an inpatient setting.
The big difference between delegating work in a clinical setting versus a non-clinical setting is that, in a clinical setting, roles tend to be clearly defined. Going back to the previous list:
- Phlebotomists draw the blood
- Nurses administer the meds
- Case managers find the nursing home beds
- Interns do the scutwork
And so on. But if you’re part of a team developing a product or offering a non-clinical service, chances are the lines are a bit blurred. You’ll have your overarching responsibilities. But when it comes to discrete tasks and deliverables, it’s not always clear who is responsible for them. It’s not always obvious which team member should initiate a communication with a client. The key is to make sure the question is answered. At every meeting, every ‘to do’ item should have a responsible party. You should come away from each interaction with a clear idea of who has the ball in their court for each action item.
You’re already comfortable with delegating, and a non-clinical career will simply require you to put this skill into full force.
This one goes hand in hand with delegating work. If you don’t delegate properly, it will be a real challenge to manage your time effectively. Thankfully, through your training and experience in medicine, you’ve learned how to do this. (If you are one of those docs constantly running 45 minutes late in clinic, this may not apply to you…) It’s true that you can get through life and even have a successful career by poorly managing your time, but chances are that your relationships, home life, and general happiness will suffer.
You may have learned this the hard way – especially during internship and residency. At some point (or many points) during your training, you probably had a to-do list so long you skipped meals or held your bladder until it was about to burst. You probably had so many admissions and patients to see that it was overwhelming but you figured out how to get to them all. You figured it out. You learned how to manage your time. And now you have that skill. In a non-clinical career, this will be indispensable. And a big bonus is that there will most likely be fewer emergencies to further stress you out.
The ability to prioritize tasks and responsibilities is one of the most important aspects of time management in a non-clinical career. Even if you can manage your time well enough to accomplish everything, you’re not working as effectively as you could if you don’t prioritize appropriately. So those long days in the hospitals full of emergencies and urgent patient situations will serve you well.
7Meeting requirements and checking off a list like a boss
This is list of requirements for a state medical license (look familiar):
- Completed application form
- 3 letters of reference
- Certificates of medical school and post-graduate training completion
- 2 fingerprint cards
- Signed photo taken within the last 6 months
- Verification of all other state medical licenses
- USMLE and board exam scores
- Malpractice history
- Substantiation of employment and hospital affiliation history
- Your first born child (jk)
It’s a lot of stuff to get a single license. If you miss even one thing, your application can sit in purgatory forever. You can’t count on someone to contact you about it and let you know what’s missing. This is just one example of how you’ve had to be contentious and keenly aware of detail in order meet a set of requirements.
You know how to meet the requirements, cut through red tape, and get what you need to accomplish a task or goal. Obtaining a medical license is an extreme example, but many undertakings in the non-clinical world come with a similar set of requirements. Submitting a patent application or a response to an RFP, for example. If you’re not paying attention and miss a requirement – however trivial it may seem – that could mean missing a deadline or an application getting rejected.
8Bringing clinical context to any situation
For some readers, this might be an obvious one. If you’re coming from a clinical career, you have clinical knowledge. But many physicians who want to make this switch are hesitant because they feel they don’t have the necessary knowledge. Great news! Your clinical knowledge is probably the only body of knowledge you need to get started. Even if you’re starting a job in a brand new field, you can learn the specifics about that field while you’re on the job.
Loads of organizations who hire physician for non-clinical roles do so, at least in part, in order to bring clinical context to a situation. You will be considered the expert when it comes to clinical questions, medical evidence, and the practices that take place in patient care settings.
- What does the literature say about X?
- How would a physician respond to Y in a clinic?
- Does Z make sense from a clinical perspective?
You know this stuff, or you at least know how to figure it out. Perhaps you’re a specialist or have focused on a narrow realm of clinical medicine. Well, the clinical knowledge you are lacking is fairly simple to obtain, because you know where and how to look it up, you have a network to ask when you get stuck, and you understand the terminology and pathophysiology.
If you’re questioning your qualifications for a non-clinical role, this is an important thing to give yourself some credit for. Employers do not take clinical experience lightly, and your first-hand experience is often a substantial factor in hiring decisions and in your success in a position. I’ve looked at countless job posting for non-clinical jobs, and have found them to be heavily weighted toward “soft” requirements and responsibilities such as “brings clinical context for the features or products being developed to the product teams. Job requirements often include vague statements and rarely include many technical competencies.
9Taking responsibility and being reliable
As physicians, we absolutely need to be reliable when caring for patients. You simply can’t drop the ball, for ethical reasons, liability, and because it puts our jobs and reputations at risk. We’ve all learned how to take responsibility for things and to follow through with what we say we’re going to do.
This may seem like an obvious skill, but it’s a skill that is more prominent in medicine that in other fields. I’ve been surprised a number of times throughout my career when people never close the loop. “Let me check on that and get back to you” sometimes never happens. I’ve heard of hiring managers taking so long to get back to a candidate that the job seeker took another position.
In my personal life, as well, I’ve tried to hire contractors that don’t return my calls. Don’t they want the work? I invited guests to my wedding and they didn’t return the pre-addressed, pre-stamped RSVP card. Is it that hard to make a checkmark and drop it in a mailbox?
Consequently, you’re set apart from other professionals in that responsibility and reliability have (hopefully) become second nature to you. If you demonstrate this to an employer, they’ll want to keep you.
10Knowing your limits
We’ve all learned not to try to be heroes. We know when to tell a patient that their presentation is too complex for us to diagnose alone. We know when to consult a colleague, when to admit that an approach isn’t working, and when to call a death when a code has been going on long enough.
A nonclinical career will probably put you in the midst of large, complicated projects. Without knowing your limits and knowing when to ask for help or clarification, you can work furiously without making headway. You’re more likely to be working from your own office and may not have interactions as frequently as in clinical practice. It may require some impetus to get up and initiate a discussion with a colleague. But it will always be worth it.
Moving from clinical medicine to a non-clinical career is a big change, for sure. But you have deep toolbox of skills that will serve you well. Use them to sell yourself during the job search. Use them carry you through the first few months as you learn the nuances of a new field. Use them to ensure success throughout your career.
For those of you in non-clinical jobs, what other skills did you bring to the table? Comment below.