HealthMarch 09, 2020

Physician retirement: How to know when it’s time

By: Heidi Moawad, MD

Physician retirement can be bittersweet. Even if you’ve spent years complaining about your high-pressure workload, you may have a hard time letting go. The decision about when to retire involves a number of factors, and most doctors would rather willingly end their own clinical practice than be subjected to forced retirement.

However, it may be difficult to wind down because of high demand for your expert services as a physician. Health Leaders reports that the physician population is aging, potentially leading to a shortage of providers.

As you ponder how long you want to continue practicing, you may consider factors such as finances, your willingness to keep up your clinical pace and just what you’ll do all day during retirement. You might also be worried about whether retirement from patient care will change how you view your identity.

Are you financially equipped?

The most obvious change during retirement is likely your diminished income. Will you have enough savings to support yourself? Despite physicians’ solid incomes, it can take time to save enough to retire. According to Medical Economics, lengthy training means that physicians face a delayed start in saving for retirement, but real-life expenses like mortgages and your children’s college tuition don’t necessarily wait to set in.

As a retiree, you’ll have steady expenses like housing and dining, but you may also be planning on pricy splurges such as travel, a new home or helping your kids with wedding and education costs. For some people, taking care of elderly parents adds another costly expenditure.

Whatever your plans are, it’s vital that you discuss expectations with your life partner before you retire so that you can come to an agreement regarding how you’ll spend money when you’re no longer earning a salary. If the numbers don’t add up, you might decide to work for a few more years!

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Do you know how you’ll spend your time?

Once you retire, your days will be different. One key element of retirement is deciding whether you want to have structure in your schedule. Will you develop or deepen hobbies such as fitness, decorating, socializing or community projects? When you’re considering activities to join, would you rather drop in at your convenience or take on responsibility with others depending on you, for example teaching a class or playing on a competitive team?

Child care is another time-consuming task that often keeps retirees busy. Are you going to commit to be a regular babysitter for your grandchildren? If so, it helps to be clear about your availability.

You may have lofty plans for life after retirement, but be sure to talk with your family about their expectations as you decide how much you want others to rely on you. If you want to take on new projects, be realistic about how your nonworking days will be scheduled.

Is your partner ready?

Your life partner is another important factor to consider when planning your retirement. If they will still continue to work, they might not be able to travel or go out as much as you want to. For example, a weeklong cruise might work, but a three-month world tour may not be doable, and they may not want to go to a fitness class with you right after a long day of work.

As you’re planning your retirement, you might be excited about your own abundance of free time, but you and your partner will need to decide how much of your energy they can handle.

Are you ready to give up clinical activity?

You might decide that you want to keep your medical license even after you retire. Volunteering at a free clinic or in a university teaching clinic just a few hours per month is a great fit for some retired physicians.

Seeing patients on a volunteer basis can help you maintain your skills, especially if you’re teaching medical students or residents. Yet you might eventually get rusty due to spending less time on the job. That said, it’s not necessarily true that physician age has a negative effect on patient outcomes, as one study of surgeons published in the Annals of Surgery found.

Still, it’s important to be ready to pack up your medical bag when you sense that your knowledge is getting outdated or your dedication is starting to wane. Keep that reality in mind before you retire so you don’t end up heartbroken if your colleagues feel you’ve been hanging on too long.

Do you want to continue to receive recognition?

Ahead of your retirement, some honest reflection can help you cope with the loss of your physician identity. Will you continue to introduce yourself with the title “doctor”? Will you crave extra respect from friends and family to substitute for the esteem that you were used to receiving from patients and staff? Will the lack of income or a diminished sense of purpose cause you to feel down or depressed?

If you can find ways to achieve measurable accomplishments through activities like exercise or learning to paint or play music, you may take the burden off others by not pressuring them for constant applause. Having new achievements can help you have more positive relationships with your friends and family after you retire.

On the medical side, you can continue to receive recognition by writing for a journal or by speaking at conferences and shows. Many journals will also host their own conferences that you can speak at, depending on your specialty.

Physician retirement from practice can be a relief as well as an opportunity to relax and enjoy new avenues in life. But retirement can also be financially or emotionally challenging for many physicians. Honestly reflecting on touchy issues and talking with your loved ones about expectations can prevent sticky problems from arising when you retire from medicine.

Heidi Moawad, MD

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