How to return to medicine after retiring

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published July 27, 2021

Key Takeaways

In terms of medicine, what do 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic have in common? Aside from being healthcare and humanitarian crises, perhaps not much—except that both events encouraged many physicians who had been retired from clinical practice to return to help those in need.

That’s according to an article published by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which offers insights to retired doctors who are contemplating re-entering medicine.

“The current pandemic due to the novel coronavirus has highlighted what has been discussed for years: a current and worsening shortage of physicians in all specialties,” said Kimberly Templeton, MD, past-president of the American Medical Women's Association, in an interview with the AAMC. “If we can come up with viable solutions to address these issues now, it may help to improve healthcare for the long-term.”

For those physicians whose license has lapsed or clinical skills are rusty, the return to practice involves a process. Let’s take a closer look.


Currently, 49 state medical boards have policies and regulations outlining what a physician needs to do to re-enter practice after a typical range of 1 to 10 years, which represents “an extended period of clinical activity,” according to the AAMC. All states require proof of continuing education and competency to re-enter practice. Credentialing committees need to see that returning physicians have kept abreast of the latest technologies, treatments, and protocols, as well as demonstrating solid clinical skills.

To receive a license anew, returning physicians typically need to undergo an evaluation. Some boards require returning physicians to retrain under a supervising physician or partake of supervised clinical experiences. 

Traditionally, monitoring periods can last up to a year, which is a long time. To make matters more complicated, these programs have several requirements, and returning physicians may only be granted “temporary” or “limited” licensure, which can make it difficult to obtain hospital privileges and malpractice coverage.

Re-entry programs

According to experts, re-entry programs not only serve as a path to re-licensure but also provide strong educational experiences for those who may have completed medical school and postgraduate training many years earlier. Here are two examples of prominent re-entry programs highlighted by the AAMC.

The Physician Retraining & Reentry Program (PRR) is not only intended for retired physicians but also for surgeons or specialists who want to switch to practicing primary care, as well as those who have been pursuing work opportunities outside of clinical medicine for some time. It offers credits through the University of California San Diego (UCSD), and learning is self-directed via online modules. In addition to garnering employment at hospital or VA clinics, job opportunities for graduates include university clinics, industrial clinics, and federally funded clinics. 

Another re-entry program highlighted by the AAMC is the Reentry to Clinical Practice Program (RCP), offered by the Center for Personalized Education for Physicians (CPEP). Due to COVID-19, except for assessments requiring technical demonstration, all evaluations provided by this program are done via videoconference.

“Our [program] has been proven effective in case after case. We focus on the individual and personalize our program based on the clinician’s specific needs, specialty, and anticipated scope of practice,” notes the CPEP website. “This approach starts with the initial evaluation of clinical skills and continues in the development of a personalized Re-entry Plan.”

They stressed, “To qualify for the RCP Program, clinicians must have left the medical field in good standing and plan to re-enter areas of clinical practice in which they have had prior clinical training and experience.  Clinicians looking to get back into practice after a disciplinary sanction or who are switching specialty areas may qualify for the CPEP’s Clinical Competence Assessment Program.”

It should be noted that formal re-entry programs can be pricey, costing between $3,000 and $10,000 a month, according to the AAMC article. This price tag may place a burden on retired physicians without active sources of income.

Considerations before ‘unretiring’

As the pandemic continues to put a strain on the US healthcare system, retired doctors and other health professionals have been called upon to re-enter the workforce. But that may not be such a simple proposition, according to an article published by the AMA. “No matter the reason for their departure, most physicians cannot just return to practice when they decide it’s time. Instead, reentry is a complicated and time-consuming process,” states the article.

Moreover, as it pertains to COVID-19, physicians who are currently planning to return to practice after retirement are likely at greater risk of being infected with the virus. The question of whether doctors older than 65 should be seeing patients face-to-face is complicated and must be weighed against the benefits that they can provide, according to AMA President Patrice A. Harris, MD, MA.

“As with all people in high-risk age groups, careful consideration must be given to the health and safety of retired physicians and their immediate family members, especially those with chronic medical conditions,” she said.

There are many ways for senior doctors to contribute without providing in-person care with patients, the article notes, including online teaching/mentoring of medical students, assisting with telehealth or administrative duties at a health system, or online outreach to nursing home residents, to name a few.  

In any case, the AMA outlines six key considerations when deciding to return to work after retirement.

Finally, learn more about the life-changing decisions physicians and other health professionals have had to make due to the pandemic at MDLinx.

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