What happens when your physician spouse or partner is tired of being a doctor, or maybe they even hate being a doctor? What are the options? Where do they even begin? We turned to Dr. William Blake, a practicing surgeon turned consultant, to ask what steps he took and what to consider when making the tough decision to leave medicine. Here’s what he wrote:
I remember the day well. It was the last surgery I would ever perform, a simple tendon repair. After I placed my last suture, I carefully dressed the wound, and rather than have my assistant apply the splint, I did it myself. It took me longer than normal, but as much as I tried to drag it out, it was over. Rather than rip off my surgical cap as I was leaving, I carefully folded it up and hesitated before I placed it in the trash as I walked out of the hospital for the last time.
On the drive home I couldn’t help but wonder, “Did anyone even notice? Does anyone care that I won’t be coming back? Did I just make the biggest mistake of my life? What was I doing? Am I crazy? I must be crazy.”
And so it ended. After a few more months of seeing post-op patients, I was no longer a private practice physician. Grief, fear, shock, and nervousness were often there to guide me along with the transition. Fortunately, I had prepared for much of what was to come.
When others ask how I quit being a doctor, I tell them I didn’t quit being a doctor. I’m still Dr. Blake. I then explain a little about the process of my transition, how I made the decision to leave, how I planned for it, and how there were bumps along the way. If they are considering making the change themselves, here’s what I tell them:
- Know your why.
- Assess the pros and cons.
- Look at your options.
- Consider your debt.
- Make a plan.
- Revise as necessary.
Know your why
When I told my friends or colleagues I was no longer practicing medicine, the response was always, “But why?” accompanied by a really puzzled look. It took me a while to not fumble, but after answering it a few times, I found myself reciting a shortened version: I went into medicine to help others and yes, I was fixing many of my patients. But what I discovered was that to really help them, they need to learn how to fix themselves. I learned I wanted to teach, not fix.
I didn’t hate being a doctor. There were many things I loved about it, which made it even more difficult to make a change. Knowing why you want to be a doctor, or why you don’t want to be a doctor, is the first place to start.
Why did you choose to get into medicine? It’s a question most of us had to answer when we were going through the med school application process. But we evolve and grow. Circumstances and life change, and so do our thoughts and beliefs. On occasion, this compels us to act so that what we do lines up with who we are.
Start by looking at the bigger picture and determining your purpose. Now, more than ever, there are many reasons healthcare workers want to leave medicine. My personal physician, a successful pulmonologist, has been overwhelmed with trying to maintain his personal wellness during the pandemic. At our last visit, I asked how he was doing. After a few minutes of listening to him explain how exhausted he was, he asked me the same thing I hear so often, “How do you do it outside of medicine? If you know of anything I could do, would you let me know?”
Whatever your situation, spend enough time doing some real soul searching to first discover why you want to leave clinical practice. Are you tired of being a doctor, or are tired of the life you’re living as a doctor?
Assess The Pros and Cons
Maybe you’re burned out, maybe you want a more simple life, maybe you just hate being a doctor. This sounds like a simple exercise, but as you’re determining your purpose, also make a list of everything you like and don’t like about being a physician.
If you have someone important in your life who would also be affected by this decision, involve them in the process upfront. Express your thoughts and feelings to your partner early, because surprising them on the day you leave greatly decreases your chances of a successful transition. There are enough roadblocks along the way without having to negotiate the journey with an unenthusiastic partner. To mediate any potential conflicts, think about getting a neutral third party involved, such as a couples therapist, to help guide you through the crucial communications that will arise.
Look at Your Options
Once you’ve organized your thoughts about why you want a change, look at the many options in front of you for your post-clinical life. It may feel like you have no other options, but there are more than you recognize.
I refer back to the time when, as a medical student, I was rounding with an intimidating surgeon in the hospital. A group of students and I were standing outside a patient’s door and after reviewing the patient’s chart, he asked the dreaded question, “What are our options?” An awkward silence ensued. We tried to avoid looking at him hoping if we didn’t make eye contact, he wouldn’t ask. He broke the silence by saying, “Now come on, you always have at least two options. You can do nothing or you can cut it off.” Luckily for this patient, we had additional options! From that point on, when faced with a problem, I always have at least those options. I can always do nothing or I can cut it off.
Fortunately, you have many options that range from no change to radical change. Doing nothing is always an option, and sometimes it’s a really good option. Intense emotions can lead you down an unfavorable path if you are pursuing greener grass. If being a doctor is depressing, then make sure you address that (with a professional if needed) throughout the process, because any job can be depressing. You would hate to make a big change only to realize that you’re still depressed with your new career.
If doing nothing is not what you choose, then consider a soft change. Maybe alter your current practice somehow, change up your specialty, or the hours you work. Test things out. Little changes can sometimes be enough to bring you back into alignment.
Maybe you’re looking to stay in healthcare, but out of clinical practice. You’ve accumulated years of healthcare-related knowledge and experience that are valuable in other professions. Who better to manage other doctors than someone who is a doctor? Look for other skills or passions that you have and see if your physician background could potentially give you an edge over others.
Technology, finance, administration, insurance, law, business, wellness, and education are all examples of other industries that could benefit from your unique perspective. I have a friend who now creates healthcare software, one who changed her practice to medical aesthetics, one in politics, and another who consults for medical product companies. When I left, it was to start a management company for private practice doctors.
A more significant change would be to get out of healthcare altogether. I often shared with others that had I not gone to medical school, I would have wanted to become a chef. Look beyond healthcare to give this exercise the seriousness it deserves. Dive deep and search, because this isn’t something you’re going to want to do again.
Your final option is always to “cut it off”. For some, retiring early and enjoying the beach will be the answer. It’s always an option. For most, there are financial restraints, but at least consider it. It’s amazing how many other options will come to your mind once you face this most distant alternative. Preparing for an early retirement requires strict financial discipline, but there are many ways to approach it. Passive income investments assure continued cash flow. My preference was real estate. I intentionally looked for office space where I could place satellite practices that I could own. High-income finance and investment professionals are available for consultation, but be cautious as your high income makes you a target for bad or fraudulent advice. If you choose this route, make sure you carefully scrutinize whomever you use and learn as much as you can about investing so you can be wise in your financial choices.
The road to becoming a doctor wasn’t easy, but at least there were many who had been down that path before. There was no shortage of support along the way. Getting out of medicine is a much different beast as it’s a much less traveled path. Reach out to those who have gone through it and talk it over with them. Change your perspective and constantly look for how your experience as a doctor could provide value in every other career you come across.
Make it a habit to write down every idea that comes to mind. That list will have a hundred ideas and ninety-seven of them will be bad. The remaining three are where you’ll find something better than what you’re doing now. Lucky for you, you’ll only need one.
Consider Your Debt
“But I haven’t even paid off my school loans. I can’t afford to NOT be a doctor. I’m trapped.” These are the words of those who want to, but don’t think they can get out for financial reasons. These feelings are justifiable as there aren’t many occupations that pay as well as being a physician. Navigating a big career change with a lot of remaining debt requires better planning, maybe a longer transition, and creative ideas.
To those who say it’s impossible, I respond with 2 points. The first is, you are more valuable than you realize. You have had more training and education than most. You know how to learn. Your medical and clinical expertise put you in a unique pool of job-seeking candidates. You’ve already proven that you can learn something really hard and that you are able to do consistent and difficult work. Over qualification might be the more likely scenario.
Secondly, you can live on less than you think. Income isn’t the only measure of success and if you are really not okay with living a simpler lifestyle then maybe your why isn’t what you thought it was. This is one of the reasons why really looking at your purpose is so important. Start your budget trimming today. A common scenario is a young doctor who went many years without any money who all of a sudden starts making a lot and starts living a higher lifestyle because they feel they deserve it. You do deserve it. You worked hard for it. But fiscal restraint is essential until you can get out from under the burden of debt.
For some, the biggest concern may be paying off student loans. When it comes down to it, which do you want more? If you are really tired of being a doctor, use that as your motivation to get creative. If you leverage your unique experience you could actually end up in a better financial situation. Yes, making more is entirely possible which is why the next step is such an important part of the process.
Make a plan
Don’t make decisions in emotion. This is a big change for you and those close to you. You didn’t just wake up one day and say, “I want to be a doctor” and by the end of the week you became one. There were many steps along the way. The same should be true for getting out. The bigger the change, the bigger the need for a good plan.
The first thing to consider is getting yourself as mentally and emotionally healthy as possible. This may sound easier than it will be. Your decision to leave may be rooted in the emotional toll being a doctor has taken on you so strong mental and emotional health is a critical part of any plan. Without a plan for your mental health, you may end up on the other side and realize nothing has changed.
A transition plan is especially needed for those who are still paying off student loans or who will take a financial hit. This will make the journey more realistic and manageable. One thing to consider is that you don’t have to jump in with both feet, all at once. Test it out, take tiny steps.
If your change means you’re going to make less money, then change your budget now. See if you can live on less while you’re making more. Make this part of your discovery process. Take your time. Remember, it took you more than ten years to get to where you are now, so you know how to be patient and to work for what you want. Take as long as you need. It will be worth it in the end if it truly is what you really want.
For those of you with a partner, spouse, or family, it’s crucial to make them part of the planning process. Communication is key here. Their input along the way can make them an ally rather than an obstacle as you create the roadmap to your destination.
Revise as Necessary
As you start executing your plan there will be roadblocks and detours. Despite all your efforts, you cannot plan for everything. Unforeseen things will happen. Adjustments and flexibility will be required.
Unexpected emotions will also arise as you start to execute your plan. There will be times you wonder if you’re doing the right thing. If you’ve started optimizing your mental health from the beginning you will bank some emotional currency. Any roadblocks along the way will be better handled if you can approach them with less emotion.
It’s important to remember that nothing has to be permanent. There will always be a huge demand for physicians and you can always go back (as long as licensure is kept updated). The journey doesn’t have to be one way. For those considering a different path, don’t look at it as a final destination. Maybe you’re really a nomad at heart and you’ll have many other destinations throughout your life.
Going through this process, you’ll learn that it’s not as much about what you do that matters, it’s who you are and how you live. Wherever your journey takes you, take happiness and peace with you rather than expect to find it once you get there. Ultimately life is an adventure, enjoy the ride and live it without regret. Yes, you can always do nothing, but you’re feeling this way for a reason. Look for why you’re experiencing this and do something. Your mental and emotional health matter and addressing that will help you in whatever you choose, even if you end up “cutting it off”.