HealthMay 27, 2020

How a physician sabbatical can change your life

By: Roxanna Guilford-Blake
A physician sabbatical offers more than time off. Here’s how it can bolster your career and restore your energy.

Have you considered taking a sabbatical? Physician sabbaticals can assume different shapes. You can take time off to study, do research, volunteer or just recover from burnout. But no matter what you do with your time, a physician sabbatical can enhance your career and your life. Here's why.

Learning and doing

Many physician sabbaticals focus on a particular type of work. Some are devoted to volunteer work, while others may involve teaching for a year or finishing that MBA.

For many, a physician sabbatical becomes an opportunity for bench research. Scott Friedman, MD, the dean for therapeutic discovery and chief of the division of liver diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, believes his research sabbatical transformed his career.

"Without question, the year was the most meaningful and transformative experience - personally and professionally - of my academic life," he wrote in Cellular and Molecular Gastroenterology and Hepatology. "Just before my sabbatical my laboratory had cloned a transcription factor, KLF6, so I sought to work in a laboratory with expertise in transcription factor biology."

Radiation oncologist Sidney Roberts, MD, opted for an academic sabbatical that had nothing to do with the life sciences. He spent four weeks in a seminary in Beatenberg, Switzerland, translating the work of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. "I am happy to report that I came back from my sabbatical not just refreshed and much less stressed, but more self-aware and ready for many more productive years of practice," he wrote in a Texas Medical Association blog post.

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A tonic for burnout

Many physicians turn to sabbaticals to alleviate burnout. That's no surprise. According to research out of Stanford University, more than half of physicians working today suffer from it. That same study found that burnout is associated with increased medical errors. And we all know about the exceptionally high physician suicide rate — it's more than twice that of the general population, as Medscape reports.

Burnout drove Kara Pepper, MD, to take a sabbatical. She described her experience on KevinMD: "Nearing mid-career, I found myself burned out and in need of a reset. I needed time to find out who I was - as a physician, a wife, a mother, a human being. I was finally ready to feel again. By giving myself permission to step away from my work, I was also admitting I would no longer be defined by that work."

Getting the lay of the land

Find out about your organization's sabbatical policies. Academic institutions are more likely to let you take a physician sabbatical, and policies usually allow one every seven years for senior faculty, with reduced pay for that time.

Overall, however, only a minority of organizations provide physicians with a sabbatical benefit. Physicians are typically eligible after about five to 10 years of service, and the length may range from one month up to a year. Compensation ranges from a percentage of salary to full salary and benefits.

Plan ahead - way ahead

The earlier you plan, the fewer hassles you'll encounter. Here are a few things you should consider.

  • What kind? Decide what type of sabbatical you plan to take. Teaching and/or research? Volunteering? A side pursuit?
  • When? You don't have to pinpoint the dates now, but pick a year and perhaps a month.
  • How long? Are you taking a few weeks? A month? A year? (Tip: It needs to be longer than your average vacation to have the desired effect — probably at least a month.)
  • Where? Are you going overseas? Staying in town? You don't have to go far to change your life. Friedman tells of a colleague who took a midcareer laboratory sabbatical without leaving town. He "completely transformed his work from clinical investigation to basic molecular biology, and he is now a highly cited scientific leader in his field," Friedman wrote.
  • How much? Set a budget that includes any travel, food and lodging costs. Be sure to factor in lost income and, if you're in a small or solo practice, the cost of hiring a locum tenens.

There's one more thing you should think about, depending on your specialty or subspecialty: maintaining your skill set (for example, dexterity) during an extended sabbatical. In an article for AANS Neurosurgeon, Maya Babu, MD, MBA, director of adult neurotrauma at Massachusetts General Hospital, gave advice on how to keep those fine motor skills sharp. One possibility: Take up needlepoint.

Is there an optimal time?

So, when is the best time in your career to take a sabbatical? It's really up to you. Arguments can be made for early career, even immediately postresidency, while some may feel it's best to take one later, when you're likely more financially stable. Do you want to go while any children you may have are young and can travel with you, or do you want to wait until they're in college or grown? It's a personal and professional choice only you can make.

Roxanna Guilford-Blake

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