Career Path

What is the purpose of retirement?

Many doctors are increasingly frustrated about the bureaucratic and regulatory environment of physician practice. For those who are nearing retirement age, it is tempting to “hang it up” early to escape the stress of a job that has lost its fun. Since younger physicians are frequently much more adept at the use of EHR’s and other forms of technology, they may have found it easier to adapt to the difficulties of modern practice. Many of us are living well into the 80’s and 90’s so retirement in the 60’s may leave many years to enjoy. The concept of “quality years remaining” has become more important.

If you are thinking about retiring, it is important to start planning well ahead of time to be sure that you will have a happy and rewarding next phase of life. In other words, a sense of purpose is key.  There are some questions that need to be asked a few years before starting the winding-down process.

  • Are you financially able to stop working as a hand surgeon? What issues with partners and your employment contract should you consider?
  • What do you enjoy doing? Do you have hobbies or even a serious avocation that might lead to a second career?
  • Is your family prepared to have you around the house?
  • What will you do about health insurance if you are under 65? Are there health issues that could affect your plans?

Burnout is high among doctors of all ages, leading to various unhealthy outcomes. If retirement is considered as a resolution for burnout issues, it is important to have a plan well ahead of leaving medical practice. Medical practice changes rapidly and it is difficult to go back after a hiatus of more than a few months.

I have had partners who retire from surgical practice but continue doing non-operative practice, medical chart reviews or some other medically related work. Others have become full-time volunteers or have gotten involved in medical missions or global travel. Some have gotten more involved in hobbies such as golf or have spent more time with grandchildren. I know several people who have turned hobbies like woodworking, writing or collecting into a second career.

I planned my retirement last year after 30 years of practice and answered the questions above a year or so ahead of my last day (with input from my physician husband). There are always unanticipated issues that can arise; for example, my practice changed its policy on retiree insurance after I had set my retirement date. In my case, I ended up with a second career as a state Senator. This was not in my original plan but the timing was such that it made sense for me.

The transition out of clinical practice has been interesting. I have tried hard to maintain my identity as a doctor by maintaining my license, volunteering with our state’s Medical Reserve Corps and doing part-time patient safety work as a consultant. I miss doing surgery and also being face-to-face with most of my patients, but my new career as an elected official hasn’t left a lot of time for looking backward. I can imagine that if I were not totally immersed in the political world, my husband might find it difficult to have a Type A running around the house.

The experience of being a “freshman” at my age and starting over in a field with a steep learning curve and many pitfalls has been challenging. To go from being an expert with an established reputation and routine to a new job that is completely unpredictable is a serious transition that I am not sure I would recommend. That is a different subject for another time.

Two books that I found helpful were “How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free” by Ernie Zelinski, and “Planning Ahead: Retirement for the Type A Personality” by our colleague Dr. David Green. The take-home message is that it is important to have a plan and to consider well ahead of time what will make you happy for perhaps many years.

Article written by:

Kay Kirkpatrick is currently a Georgia state Senator, retired from private practice in Atlanta, Georgia with Resurgens Orthopaedics. She is also involved with patient safety initiatives and teaching TeamSTEPPS. When she is not at work, she likes to do dog therapy with her golden doodle, play golf, and watch Stanford football. She also enjoys spending time at her country place in northwest Alabama.

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