A female physician’s perspective: Knowing when to quit

By Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI, FACC, FACP
Published June 29, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • It’s not unusual for female physicians especially to reach a point in their career where they question whether clinical medicine is right for them.

  • Knowing when to move on, and how to go about it, requires a special skill set.

  • Honest self-examination and consulting with a trusted confidante can bring a resolution for female physicians questioning their career path.

According to a 2022 article from Harvard Business Review, female physicians are quitting en masse, creating a staffing crisis that is on course to only worsen in the years ahead.[] Research shows that female physicians spend more time with patients, translating to better patient outcomes compared with the male physician population. However, when paired with greater responsibilities at home as well, female physicians experience significantly higher rates of burnout and depression.

This is no secret to those in the healthcare profession, and is a focus of many healthcare reform organizations looking to improve work-life balance for women, specifically. Regardless, sometimes it is in your best interest to focus on your current state of affairs, instead of waiting indefinitely for conditions to improve.

Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI, a cardiologist with 30 years of experience in clinical medicine, shares why you should feel empowered to seriously consider a reprieve from your career in clinical medicine, despite it feeling like an insurmountable and irresponsible task.

We have always tried our best—and succeeded

We had to work so hard to get to where we are in our medical careers. That meant cultivating perseverance and persistence, with no small amount of discipline. It meant packing our schedules to overflowing to have the best chances of securing the best colleges, medical schools, training programs, and career opportunities.

"We learned to say yes to everything and anything that might further our careers."

Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI

So it’s understandable that many of us have trouble saying “no.” Even more difficult is knowing when to quit when we’re in the midst of a good opportunity or position. Because of this, I believe it’s likely we have at one time said “yes” to an opportunity that wasn’t right for us.

Related: The toughest choices I’ve had to make in my medical career

The dilemma of changing course

We may be scared to leave a position despite it being toxic or emotionally draining, because of the fear of the unknown. We may feel we don’t know what else to do, or feel we’ve already invested so much time and effort that we worry that quitting would be an unforgivable waste.

But move on we must, and knowing when and how to do so requires specific skills crucial for both life and career—skills that can also open up untold opportunities and possibilities.

Know thyself

Knowing when something is no longer right for you really requires knowing yourself; not someone else’s image or vision of you, but your own desires and needs to help you feel happiness in your personal and professional life.

Maybe you’re on too many committees or have long commutes to satellite clinics. You’re finding it exhausting, while others—maybe your male colleagues—seem to be okay with it, maybe even expect it, so why shouldn’t you?

Maybe you have agreed to speak at too many conferences, and what you’d really like to do is spend time with family on some Saturday mornings, rather than flying across the country to give yet one more lecture.

Or maybe it’s something huge, like realizing that you don’t like seeing patients after all. 

It can take a long time to allow yourself to come to the conclusion that clinical medicine isn’t right for you. In my experience, one can stay in clinical medicine far too long, trying valiantly to make it work while becoming more and more miserable the whole time. You ask yourself, “Didn’t I always want to be a doctor? Isn’t that why I went to medical school, studied so hard, and endured all this training?”

You may even ask yourself if there is something wrong with you. The fact is, there is nothing wrong with you. What is wrong is the position you find yourself in.

Additional advice from another female physician

Knowing when to quit means being honest with yourself. And if that honest self-examination leads you to the conclusion that you are not happy in clinical medicine, what’s next?

To help physicians navigate this very issue, Heather Fork, MD, physician career strategist and master certified coach, founded Doctor’s Crossing. She advises asking oneself a series of questions to pin down exactly what factors in clinical medicine are contributing to unhappiness. For instance, she recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  • What is getting in the way of enjoying patient care? 

  • Is the enjoyment being diminished by all of the administrative hassles?

  • Is it having to see patients every 15 minutes? 

  • Is it all the charting?

  • Does the risk of complications or malpractice enter into it?

Dr. Fork points out that it may be possible for the clinical situation to be improved by narrowing the scope of practice, for example, or by changing the practice setting or working fewer hours. She also says that it might be something else.

"It might just be that it’s time for a new challenge after a rewarding career of being a doctor in the traditional sense."

Heather Fork, MD

Seek out a trusted confidante

Whenever you’re mulling over career-changing decisions, it can be very helpful to reach out to a trusted friend to talk through the whole issue and brainstorm ideas. As Dr. Fork tells her clients, “It is helpful to talk to someone who will listen to you without judgment or agenda.”

"In time, you will be able to hear clearly your inner voice, which knows without a doubt whether it is time to stay or go."

Heather Fork, MD

Keep in mind that quitting doesn’t make you a quitter—certainly not at this stage in your life and career. It makes you an insightful, wise, and self-respecting woman in medicine.

What this means for you

To a female physician who is starting to feel that clinical medicine is no longer for them, the decision to leave can be difficult. To give it all up, after all the hard work it took to get there, may seem like that effort had been for naught. But taking the time to listen to yourself while carefully considering the aspects of clinical practice that may be causing the dissatisfaction, as well as confiding in a friend or mentor, could help in charting a new path. 

Read Next: Why are there so few women in the highest-paying specialties?
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