Since you began practicing medicine, your personal and professional identity have likely been almost inextricably linked. Not only is your sense of self tied to your profession, but over the years, you’ve also built strong emotional bonds with those you care for—relationships based on compassion, dedication and most of all trust.
Unlike most professions, medicine isn’t a career, it’s a calling. As a result, although you may have far fewer financial concerns when planning for retirement, the psychological transition can be even more daunting. What can possibly replace the intellectual stimulation that your work has provided? How will you cope with making the shift from a saver and extender of lives to a retiree? Will you feel as though you’re betraying your patients if you simply hang up your stethoscope or white coat one day and walk off into the sunset?
If you want to experience a truly fulfilling and enjoyable retirement, it’s vital that you start thinking less about what you will be retiring from, and more about what you want to be retiring to.
Find a new outlet for your passion
Anyone can offer you the financial tools to achieve a successful retirement, but few advisors understand the importance of preparing for the psychological changes that will come with retirement. One of the most important things you can do, however, is to begin seeking out new intellectual challenges and outlets for that innate calling to serve. Consider:
- Serving on the board of a nonprofit
- Becoming a career mentor
- Writing articles for medical periodicals
- A “second act” career that will allow you to remain engaged on less rigorous terms
When the time comes to retire, one or more of these could serve as an important substitute for the mental challenges and stimulation that your career currently provides. For many physicians, failure to plan for life after medicine will inevitably leave a void that no amount of vacation travel or tee times will ever be able to fill.
Did you know that while most physicians indicate they plan on retiring around age 60, the actual average retirement age is much closer to age 69?1 A strong argument can be made that this failure to plan is precisely the reason why so many continue working far beyond their intended retirement.
Of course, retirement also affords an important opportunity to strengthen family ties. After all those long hours, late nights and weekend demands of your career, you’ll finally have the quality time to devote to your spouse, children and grandchildren that you always dreamed of.
Scale back rather than burn out or walk away
A recent study conducted by MDVIP found that the demands of their medical practices are exacting a tremendous negative impact on the personal lives of primary care physicians. More than three-quarters (76%) suffer from stress-related sleep loss, with two-thirds indicating that work-related stress makes them feel as though they’re “on a treadmill that keeps speeding up.” As a result, close to half (41%) say they’ve seriously considered quitting medicine before they completely burn out.2
This is an especially disconcerting trend given the looming physician shortage. We all know the importance of striking a healthy work/life balance; but knowing and achieving are very different things— especially for a professional dealing with life and death matters on a daily basis. Yet you are so invested in your career, any fears about burnout often take a backseat to the fear of being looked upon as selfish by walking away into retirement.
“Simply closing up shop and retiring can be particularly difficult for physicians situated in less urban and more rural settings,” explains Neil Horowitz, a Medical Client Advisor with SunTrust’s Medical Specialty Group in Tampa, Florida. “When you live in a community with fewer physicians, you build up even deeper and more personal, long-term relationships with generations of families who may literally plead with you to continue seeing them.”
This is why many doctors choose to slowly transition into retirement, rather than going from 60+ hour work weeks to zero overnight. It’s nearly impossible to just flip a switch without feeling some sense of abandonment. After all, many patients of older physicians are older themselves (with all the attendant health issues that come with aging). Asking them to suddenly switch to a new caregiver after decades of being cared for by you could induce considerable stress.
For practice owners and partners, a scaling-back of work hours can also afford you with an opportunity to spend more time identifying and integrating a successor to eventually take over your patient load when you fully retire.
The planning imperative
Whether your intention is to gradually pull away from your practice or you adhere to the “rip off the band aid” philosophy, the sooner you start planning, the better off you will be and the easier the transition will prove. Start discovering and engaging with your future passions in your 40s and 50s, so that when you finally reach retirement (whatever age you choose) you have something that can fill the immense gap left by your career.
“Try to create as much continuity as possible, and look for ways to maintain your typical schedule,” recommends Drew Hayes, another Medical Client Advisor with SunTrust’s Tampa Medical Specialty Group. “There’s no right or wrong way to retire; but having discussions with your advisor that go beyond just the nuts and bolts of replacing compensation and address the various things you want to accomplish and experience is essential.” The time to have these conversations, however, is now with your family and closest friends. Don’t wait until retirement is just six months away.