Career Careening: Is Becoming a Doctor Worth it?

Is being a doctor worth it? Shot of a doctor sitting on the floor in his clinic and feeling upset
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This article explores factors contributing to the fact that 20% of physicians are considering leaving their current practice within 2 years, as well as factors that have influenced that decision, what occupations they could pursue next, and what can be done to retain the physician workforce.

Becoming a doctor requires an enormous amount of time, education, and sacrifice.1-2 Most physicians train for at least 7 years in medical school and residency before practicing independently. Such a commitment makes it difficult for physicians to entertain the possibility that becoming a physician may have been the wrong career decision. That said, it is important for physicians to honestly assess their career choices and to make a change, if needed. 

Physicians who questions their career choice should know that they are not alone. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of burnout and physician job dissatisfaction have risen significantly.3 Even prior to the pandemic, US physicians were more likely than other US workers to experience work-related stress and burnout.4

According to a survey supported by the American Medical Association (AMA) and published in 2022, 1 in 5 physicians said they were likely to leave their current practice within 2 years.5 This article will explore the factors contributing to this statistic, including the pandemic, that have influenced the decision by physicians to leave medical practice, what occupations they could pursue next, and what can be done to retain the physician workforce. 

The Reality of Being a Doctor

Although many medical students are motivated by altruism and the desire to help people when they pursue a career in medicine, reality quickly sets in as they progress through training. The reality of practicing medicine presents many challenges beyond the extraordinary responsibility of caring for patients.6 

Starting in medical school, doctors take on a burdensome workload. They work grueling hours with on-call responsibilities, have unrealistic time constraints, and are regularly expected to put work responsibilities ahead of their personal needs.6-7 In the United States, insurance company policies and procedures add additional stress by limiting physician autonomy and interfering with the therapeutic physician-patient relationship.8  

Coping with this reality is difficult for many physicians. Authors of a large 2017 study in which US physicians were surveyed found a strong relationship between burnout and physician task load.9 Authors of a study published in 2018 found that increased workload was associated with increased distress, sleep issues, and lower workability in more than 2000 surveyed physicians over a 9-year follow-up period.7 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these issues. In a survey of 2440 US physicians, the overall prevalence of burnout increased from 38.2% in 2020 to 62.8% in 2021.3 The physicians surveyed also reported significantly lower work-life balance satisfaction and professional fulfillment and high levels of emotional exhaustion.

Although the initial stresses of the pandemic have subsided — including the risk of severe infection, lack of vaccines, and inadequate protective equipment — physicians continue to deal with its long-term effects.3,10  These effects include decreased staffing, antiscience beliefs of patients, distrust in the medical system, and worsening social justice issues that affect the health of the country as a whole. 

Navigating Career Uncertainty

With the huge burden placed on modern physicians, it should not be surprising that many are experiencing career uncertainty. That said, deciding to leave clinical practice requires careful consideration. Looking for guidance from other physicians who have transitioned out of clinical practice can be helpful. 

Dr Kristen Fuller, a family physician who changed careers during the pandemic, shares useful questions to ask oneself before considering a career change11:

  • What is motivating the idea to leave medicine? Is your current work environment informing your decision? 
  • Will you feel that something is missing if you are not able to care for patients?
  • Are you dealing with burnout; if so, have you seen a mental health professional to address your mental wellness? 
  • Have you talked about this decision with family, friends, or mentors? 
  • Can you afford to leave medicine? 
  • Do you have a plan for your next career? Is there another role that seems intriguing? Will you feel happier? 

If someone’s specific workplace is contributing to their discontent, it may be worth changing employers before quitting. Some options to consider prior to abandoning clinical practice include locum tenens work, changing specialties, or transitioning between inpatient and outpatient work.11 

Physicians should also prioritize healing from burnout and other mental or physical illnesses before making a major career change like leaving clinical practice. Addressing these uncertainties and complicating factors first will best prepare physicians to determine the next steps in their careers.

Deciding What to Do Next

After dedicating many years to preparing for clinical practice, physicians who decide to leave may feel like failures. However, changing careers is a brave move and reflects prioritizing your values and needs first. There are also many options for physicians to apply their medical knowledge in nonclinical jobs.12 These include: 

  • Medical writing 
  • Medical consulting 
  • Medical education 
  • Healthcare administration 
  • The pharmaceutical and biomedical device industry 
  • Health IT 
  • Public health 
  • Research 
  • Career coaching 

Importantly, the jobs listed here vary in compensation and experience required. For example, physicians who leave clinical practice before completing residency may not be qualified to work in certain healthcare administration or medical consulting jobs without a license or board certification.13 That said, many of the jobs listed here can still be explored by physicians who leave practice during residency. 

Retaining the Physician Workforce

While doctors who ultimately leave clinical practice should be fully supported in their decision, the medical field must also prioritize retaining physicians, as the consequences of a dwindling physician workforce are dire.14,15 

Without adequate physicians and nursing staff, healthcare systems collapse, as they lack the support needed to care for patients safely.5 Research shows that changes at the organizational level are necessary and effective for creating an environment in which both clinicians and patients may thrive.3 Some of the most important interventions for organizations to consider are reviewed in the Table.

Table. Systems-Level Interventions to Improve Doctor Retention

Reduce administrative burdenYears of research have identified administrative burden as a stressor for physicians that can lead to burnout and job dissatisfaction.7,9,16 In response, the ACP developed “Patients Before Paperwork,” a framework for mitigating tasks not directly related to patient care.15 Other organizations may use this framework to make changes to processes within their institution.
Create a diverse and inclusive work environmentA diverse workforce in which physicians from different backgrounds feel included promotes faculty retention and better patient care.17,18 Experts emphasize the importance of senior leadership in shaping the culture of their institution and prioritizing diversity.19
Improve EHR platformsIn 2019, 5000 surveyed physicians graded current US EHR platforms an F for usability.20 Low usability was also strongly and positively related to physician burnout. Organizations engaged in changing the EHR are prioritizing plan-oriented systems.21 A plan-oriented EHR not only documents health information but also supports physicians in managing patient plans more effectively.
Provide professional development and career advancement opportunitiesLack of professional development opportunities is a predictor of physician burnout.22 Physicians are more likely to experience burnout when less than 20% of their time working is spent engaged in meaningful professional activity.23 Conversely, purpose and passion are protective against burnout and promote retention.  
Support mentorshipFaculty mentorship can reduce alienation and career anxiety experienced by training or junior physicians.24 Mentorship benefits not only the mentee but also the mentor and the institution. Supporting mentees can give mentors a sense of purpose and relieve burnout. Organizations are more likely to retain physician workers when they invest in robust mentorship programs.
Improve working conditionsPoor working conditions — including inadequate time and staff, toxic organizational culture, and chaotic work environment — are associated with physician burnout, stress, and a desire to leave clinical practice.25,26 A supportive team environment can protect against these effects.7 Working conditions also have a significant effect on both the quality of care provided by physicians and patient outcomes, which also affect physician job satisfaction and retention.  
Engage in transparent communicationPhysicians who feel aligned with their employer’s values and goals are more likely to be engaged with their work.22 Organizations should communicate their values and goals clearly to facilitate this alignment.
Prioritize physician well-being and allow for work flexibilityPhysicians are less likely than other US workers to feel content with their work-life balance, thereby increasing burnout risk.22 Wellness programs have historically addressed individual factors, but evidence supports the need for institutional changes to support physician well-being.17 Changes to consider include developing an institutional definition of well-being, transparent decision-making that engages learners, exposure to the arts, and supporting learners to understand what promotes their personal wellness.

ACP = American College of Physicians; HER = electronic health record.

Prioritizing Your Health

Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the physician burnout epidemic has been a global crisis for decades. In 2023, organizations are in a position to make significant changes to address this epidemic and preserve the physician workforce. 

Although individual physicians should be involved in these efforts, they must also prioritize their own health and well-being. If clinical work is making them mentally or physically sick or dissatisfied, it is acceptable to consider a career change.

Those doctors who decide to leave clinical practice have numerous options available to them, and engaging with family, friends, and mentors for support will help to ensure a smooth career transition.

Originally appeared on Cancer Therapy Advisor.


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