[Editor's Note: Today's guest post is from preventive medicine physician Sylvie Stacy, MD MPH. Dr. Stacy is the author of the book, 50 Nonclinical Careers for Physicians, and blogs at LookforZebras.com about career fulfillment, side gigs, professional development, preventing burnout, income generation, and entrepreneurship for physicians and other healthcare professionals. We have no financial relationship.]
We've been hearing a lot about physician burnout recently. It has been referred to as an epidemic and a crisis. Leading medical journals are publishing manuscripts about it. Researchers are validating psychometric tools to measure it. Heck, it even has its own gender gap.
Yes, physicians face a lot of challenges and frustrations. But many doctors are too hurried in deciding they want to leave medicine as a result.
There's nothing wrong with thinking about a career change. However, the decision for doctors quitting medicine, transition to a nonclinical role, or even change positions within your current field shouldn't be made out of frustration.
Want to Quit Medicine? Here are Five Questions That You Should Ask Yourself First.
#1 Do you truly dislike medicine or just your current job?
Medicine is a very broad field. The practice settings available to medical doctors within medicine are highly varied. Moreover, jobs that are similar to one another in different organizations (and sometimes even different positions within the same organization) vary in the patient populations being treated, the culture, and many other factors. These factors can greatly impact a doctor's enjoyment of work.
It's important to tease out whether you truly dislike practicing medicine or whether there are aspects of your job that are fooling you into thinking that you dislike medicine.
If your answer to this question is that you do, indeed, dislike medicine, it is still crucial to think about what parts of your current job contribute to your discontent. Chances are that you'll face at least a few of your current frustrations at your next job, as well – even if the next job is far removed from clinical practice. Office politics, glitchy technology, poor work-life balance, and unreasonable managers don't exist solely in health care organizations.
A major career change might not be necessary. Perhaps there's a way to address your frustrations in your current position or to transfer to a different division within your company. Not every change needs to be a drastic one.
#2 Have you fully considered the options available to you in the medical field?
- To stop direct patient care activities
- To take any job with mainly nonclinical responsibilities
- To work for an organization that doesn't serve patients
- To do something completely unrelated to health care
It's worth considering which of these will actually address your basis for wanting to leave medicine.
Physicians with nonclinical careers use medical skills and knowledge
The vast majority of nonclinical jobs held by physicians require or are greatly influenced by medical experience, skills, and knowledge.
Most physicians with nonclinical jobs have not “left medicine.” Rather, instead of managing individual patients, they are now focused on an entire population or on a service or product that aims to improve the health of a population.
For example, a medical director working in medical affairs for a pharmaceutical company is responsible for aligning science and business as they relate to the company’s drug or therapeutic area. This doctor’s “patients” are the whole population that may be treated with the drug. The equivalent of making a treatment decision for this physician is ensuring that sales and marketing strategies are based on accurate clinical data. Or that necessary information is disseminated to healthcare professionals who might prescribe the drug and patients who might take the drug.
A nonclinical job is not a single type of job
I am often contacted by physicians who ask if I know of any nonclinical jobs that are available. My response is always the same: What type of nonclinical job are you interested in?
There are heaps of settings outside of direct patient care in which physicians are needed. These include the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, managed care, business consulting, public health, health care administration, research, and other areas.
While roles for physicians in many of these areas have similarities, they have important distinctions.
Doctors who believe that a nonclinical position may be fitting for them benefit greatly from taking the time to read about the various types of opportunities available and different sectors that hire physicians. This knowledge will not only guide your decision but will make you a stronger candidate for the roles you apply to.
#3 How will your skills as a physician transfer to another type of work?
I frequently hear from doctors who are hesitant to pursue a nonclinical job because they feel they aren't qualified for any of the opportunities they see advertised.
After spending years in clinical practice, it's natural for some doctors to feel that their skills are limited to patient care decision-making and medical procedures. But this is emphatically not the case. We all have skills that are directly relevant to many nonclinical jobs.
You need to think about your skills broadly.
Here are just a few skills that transfer well into many nonclinical positions:
- Interpreting clinical studies and statistical analyses
- Explaining complex scientific information in lay terms
- Weighing expected benefit versus risk of a treatment or test
Soft skills, such as communication, that most physicians are proficient at when it comes to patient care are completely transferable.
As physicians, we're also adept at self-teaching, asking the right questions, pleasing multiple stakeholders, and prioritizing our time. These are just as – if not more – relevant for nonclinical jobs as they are on the wards or in the clinic.
This frame of mind can be advantageous when applying for a job. An ad for a nonclinical job, for instance, may state that a certain number of years of experience is required. Relevant experience doesn’t need to be doing exactly the same work that you’d be doing in the job you’re applying for. For example, a pharma company looking to hire a medical director with 3-5 years of industry experience might consider a physician application that has some combination of research, teaching, and patient care experience.
#4 What are the financial implications of quitting medicine?
Clinical work tends to pay better than nonclinical work, aside from senior leadership positions and a few discrete sectors. Though fulfillment and happiness should weigh the most heavily, the salary implications of leaving medicine shouldn't be taken lightly.
In addition to comparing your current income with the expected starting salary of a new position, it is worthwhile to consider future earning potential. If you remain in clinical medicine, is there a chance you'd become a department head, be made a partner, or receive another type of promotion that would be accompanied by a substantial salary increase? Similarly, if you leave medicine, what are the opportunities for promotions and future job changes? For most professionals, a single job is only a fragment of an entire career.
Salary is not the only potential financial implication of leaving medicine. A job change can be accompanied by:
- A lapse in benefits
- A change in out-of-pocket benefit costs
- Costs associated with relocating
- Loss of a portion of a 401k that is not fully vested
- A change in bonus structure
If you consider what your time is worth, then variables like changes in work schedule, paid time off, and on-call requirements can also be significant. The difference between 3 weeks of PTO and 5 weeks of PTO may be substantial to someone who loves to travel. For someone who values being able to “turn off” work-related thoughts while at home, not having on-call duties in a nonclinical job might be a chief reason for accepting a new position.
#5 How does this transition align with your professional goals?
The worst way to leave medicine is out of frustration.
Make a transition based on your professional goals. Consider what will bring you satisfaction and where you hope to take your career in the future.
Taking the time to consider what your long-term goals are will not just help you make a decision about your next job change. It will be a source of motivation and reassurance in your future career decisions. Establishing career objectives will assist you in identifying and obtaining new opportunities throughout your entire career.
Conclusion: Make Deliberate Decisions and Take Calculated Risks
I'm consistently blown away by the breadth of opportunity available to us as highly-educated medical professionals. Though the jobs and practices of many doctors have been heavily impacted by the pandemic, we have the skill sets to be employable in many settings and sectors. Most of us will not need to scramble to find work while living paycheck to paycheck. We can, in many cases, be deliberate in our decision-making and take calculated risks in our careers.
For those who believe that leaving medicine may be the best choice, it's worth delving deeper into your rationale and the expected benefits of a career transition. To get started in exploring your options, check out my new book 50 Nonclinical for Physicians.
What do you think? Have you transitioned to a nonclinical job? What questions do you think someone should ask before they “leave medicine”? Comment below!