Physician Burnout Makes for Interesting Non-Clinical Career Choices

JULY 29, 2011
Philippa Kennealy, MD, MPH, CPCC, PCC
A recent dialog on the LinkedIn SEAK Non-Clinical Careers Group page was sparked by this (all names removed):


I have retired from medicine after 42 years. I attended SEAK in Chicago and it only served to highlight my dissatisfaction with medicine as a career. I am now a bartender. I am planning to do private duty bartending and uniformed chauffeuring.

I think medical care has lost its charm. I started out in trauma and I couldn't get enough of it. I delivered babies, did c-sections and appy's, set bones. It was a gas. But the greed of other doctors for money and time off to the detriment of other doctors like me, and the profound unhappiness of my co-workers, doctors, nurses, and secretaries, reminded me there was more to life than medical practice. I am writing a murder mystery which may be so bad I may have to publish it myself. Ask me if I care.”



The largely congratulatory and sympathetic responses include this sampling of (edited) remarks:

“Fantastic! Bartending sounds like a great way to stay connected with people. I am leaving my general surgery practice to engage in a [one] year fellowship developing medical devices. I have no definite plans to return to clinical practice but will keep my license. Surgery is a wonderful profession but the headaches and call have outweighed the joys for me and my family.”

“Congratulations — I wish you the best. I am working on closing my surgery practice. I am currently starting an internet business, writing books and in the future hope to create a wellness center. The practice of medicine ran its toll for me after 11 years [of] long hours, high malpractice, poor insurance payments and heavy call schedules. [Eight] years of this time was done without single day off! I woke up one day unhappy with the realization I always discouraged my patients against working themselves into an early grave, yet I was doing just that. Anyway, I have finally slowed down enough to enjoy a sunrise...”

“I retired 6 years ago after 29 years in practice, tired of dealing with insurance companies. Today I play golf and spend time helping run our condo as a member of the board and although I keep a [license] active and attend CME courses, have no intension of returning to practice.”



And it seems, judging by the comments pouring in, that the LinkedIn conversation is not yet done!

So here we have physicians retiring early, leaving incomplete residency programs, practices closing and the pervasive thread of deep professional dissatisfaction and cynicism.

I recognize that this is a self-selected group, defined by a search for an alternative non-clinical career, but these posts are very much in line with the larger conversations happening elsewhere online.

A recent study reported in JAMA in May 2011 (whole article here) cites physician burnout estimated to be occurring in 30% to 40% of U.S. physicians.

Physicians, younger and older, are leaving the medical practice to join organizations in non-clinical roles, start businesses of their own, write books, retire sooner than planned, volunteer here and abroad and teach high school.

What does this defection say about our future prospects for a high-functioning, reformed and revamped health care system?

Today, I feel gloomy.


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