HealthMarch 16, 2020

Career satisfaction for physicians: When you question your decision to become a doctor

By: Suneel Dhand, MD
Career satisfaction for physicians can be a loaded topic. If you’re feeling burned out, how do you know when it’s time to make a change?

Talk about burnout and career satisfaction for physicians is everywhere right now, thanks to a perfect storm of factors, from increased bureaucracy and time-draining technology to a loss of autonomy as many doctors move from being their own bosses in private practices to being hospital employees.

Feeling burned out can be a devastating position to find yourself in, especially for early-career physicians. You’ve dreamed of being a doctor since elementary school. You’ve gone through an eternity of training and testing—not to mention accruing student loan debt. And now being a doctor isn’t what you thought it would be. You come home in the evenings exhausted and dread going back to work after the weekend. Each day, you feel like you’re just going through the motions, and you’ve lost the sense of joy that brought you to medicine.

The first thing to realize is that you’re not alone. Thousands of physicians across America are feeling the same way, and it’s not something to beat yourself up over or feel ashamed about. Merritt Hawkins and the Physicians Foundation found that 78% of physicians have experienced burnout in their practices. Among their other findings:

  • 80% of physicians say they’re working at capacity—or beyond.
  • 46% are planning to change career paths.
  • Only 10% feel they have the ability to impact the healthcare system.

While you can take heart knowing your feelings aren’t isolated, it’s important to know that you can take action—and you should do so as soon as possible.

Take time to reflect

Before you make any decisions, take a step back and reflect on your career. Career satisfaction for physicians can depend on a number of complex factors.

Did something specific change at work to cause a job you once enjoyed to drag you down? For example, is there a new physician group director, chief of medicine or other top-level administrator? Did you experience changes in schedule, patient load or job expectations? If you can pinpoint one or two factors specifically, this is the easiest way to start rectifying the situation.

But if the answer to the above is no, then ask yourself when exactly—if ever—you last felt good about your work. What was different then?

Finally, give yourself the leeway to imagine: If you could picture your perfect work environment, one that would allow you to have a meaningful and enjoyable job, what would that look like? What’s missing from your current picture?

Talk to your colleagues

After asking yourself these questions, honestly assess whether things can change if you stay put. To do so, try to find people at your current institution to whom you can voice your concerns and bring about positive change.

Draw on your network in your specialty or outside of it and see if physicians you know are happy in their work environments. Also, speak to current trusted colleagues about your feelings. The good thing about the physician shortage is that there may be a demand-supply mismatch for your specialty, and your facility won’t want to lose you if they’re able to help you regain your job satisfaction.

There may be multiple things that can be arranged, from changing your schedule to going part time. Many physicians who decide to do this fill the rest of their time in other ways, clinical and nonclinical. Do your best to work with your current colleagues to get what you need.

If you do decide that moving to a new hospital, clinic or physician group will make you happy, always leave on amicable terms. The medical world is small, and it’s a mistake to burn your bridges by going out in a “blaze of glory.”

Explore other career options

If you’ve exhausted all your options and determined that it’s the job itself that’s never going to bring you satisfaction, again, know that you’re not alone—and that it’s not worth sticking with work you no longer enjoy.

Other nonclinical options include going the route of healthcare administration (which will likely involve getting an MBA), academia and research or joining another industry. From pharmaceuticals to technology to startups, you’ll find them packed with former physicians. Many of these doctors will still practice medicine occasionally if they don’t want to leave clinical medicine completely. Others have started their own ventures!

Begin researching your options and networking. If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that life is too short. Someone as driven and talented as a physician always has options to find happiness, satisfaction and a livelihood.

Suneel Dhand, MD