2019 physician retirement plans: _MDLinx_ survey results

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published November 20, 2019

Key Takeaways

Physicians—as a whole—are not ready to retire just yet. Indeed, many of them want to keep practicing medicine well beyond the age the average American worker retires. Is this due to dedication, love of the job, or something else?

Each year, MDLinx sends out its retirement survey to gauge the mindset of our physician readers about retirement. We’ve pooled and analyzed the results, and here’s what we found for 2019.

Who responded?

We had 478 respondents from numerous specialties—including cardiology, oncology, dermatology, gastroenterology, internal medicine, and pediatrics—with 30% comprising “other” specialties, and 13% who practice family medicine. Breaking them down by age, there were almost equal numbers of respondents aged 55-65 years (28.7%), older than 65 years (26.2%), 31-45 years (24.5%), and 46-54 years (19.9%).

Notably, very few respondents were younger than 30 years old (0.8%). Finally, most respondents were men (69%), and had been practicing medicine for more than 25 years (48%).

And to perhaps better understand why physicians are not keen on retiring, it would help to understand why they became physicians in the first place. Most did so, they reported, based on their love of science and its application in medicine (61.7%). Helping others followed as the next most common reason (52.8%).

Some of the comments we received may help to shed a light on how strongly physicians feel about their work and why they seem to be reluctant to retire. For instance, many write-in responses conveyed a sense of being called to the medical profession, or the need to make a difference.

An endocrinologist, for example, wrote that she “wanted to be a doctor from my small days. Loved the profession.” Likewise, a psychiatrist wrote that she had an “Inner desire from childhood, I am the first MD in my family.”

Others cited the autonomy of practicing, such as this infectious disease specialist who wrote: “I wanted to be my own boss so I could do what was best without restrictions.”

More varied and interesting reasons cited for becoming a physician included a “childhood illness” and “I won a bet,” both from internists. Still another physician—a surgeon, in fact—wrote, “From the gift of healing as endowed by the Great Physician.”

Why retire?

What would make physicians consider retiring? It seems that the drudgery of paperwork is the biggest culprit, with most (55.4%) reporting that they are tired of the paperwork and/or the current political, regulatory, and insurance situation.

One surgeon eloquently and passionately wrote, “Government bureaucracy, pharma enslavement, medicolegal entrapment.”

The next most commonly cited reasons to consider retirement was reaching financial security obviating the need to work any longer (43.1%), followed by health or family issues (40.0%), the requirement for too much CME and recertification (17.8%), “other” reasons (10.8%), and pursuing another career (9.75%). Some respondents, however, maintained that they would never retire, with 7.6% citing that they love their work far too much to consider hanging up their white coats.

Among “other” reasons cited, burnout was common. For example, one psychiatrist wrote: “Burn out, dealing with too much trauma and practicing the right way burns you;” while a family practice specialist wrote, “The EHR and extra paperwork caused me to burn out.”

Many of our respondents commented that they wanted to retire to have time for the finer things in life— such as family, hobbies, travel, and leisure—while others wanted to leave when they were still at 100% and at the top of their game.

Also often cited as a reason to retire were the difficulties in maintaining a solo practice. Interestingly, however, many of the write-in answers that constituted the “other” category involved burnout, administration/bureaucracy, and abusive or demanding patients.

For example, an infectious diseases physician commented: “These days, I am forced to practice bad medicine by hospitals, insurance companies, and Medicaid. Also, income has gotten worse every year, and will continue to get worse. It is now almost impossible to have a solo private practice.”

An OB/GYN physician echoed this comment with: “The private practice in which I am employed will be bought out by a health system. Having been through this before with my own practice, I have no intention of being a chess piece that can be moved around or eliminated by the whim of an employer.”

When to retire?

Consider that the national average retirement age in the United States is 63. Consider also the results from the 2016 United States Census, which showed that 30% of practicing physicians are aged 60 years or older, and that the average age of actively licensed physicians is 51.

Not only did our results corroborate these findings, they were also in sync with results from a recent survey from CompHealth, which showed that physicians are not particularly enthusiastic about retiring.

In fact, physical disability was oft cited as the reason for retirement, like the neurologist who, said would continue to practice medicine until “When I fall and no longer can work,” the pediatrician who wrote, “As long as I can still do it, or until the legalistic part becomes unbearable!” or another pediatrician who “will work as long as health permits.”  A psychiatrist echoed this in his response, “When my competence and/or my interest are impaired.”

Based on such comments and responses to our results, we feel we can safely say that physicians are still in no hurry to retire. When respondents were asked at what age they intend to retire, almost one-half (49%) reported plans to retire between the ages of 65 and 70 years, followed by 19% who plan to retire after age 70, and 7% who responded with “never, I love my job.” Interestingly, only 14% said they’d retire before age 60. A small percentage of respondents (10%) stated “other,” while 1% reported “never, I need the income to keep up my lifestyle.”

Whatever the reason, physicians as a group are passionate about their careers and their reasons for choosing medicine and seem to be in no hurry to close-up shop and retire.

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