Is quitting medical practice worth it for you?

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published November 4, 2022

Key Takeaways

People often ask me, “Do you miss patient care? Will you go back?"

“Yes, I miss it,” I answer. “But no—I will not go back.”

I was never a full-time practicing physician. I worked part-time in a hospital and spent the rest of my working hours on the editorial side of medicine. I loved blending bedside medicine with using my knowledge and creativity to educate others.

"I never saw myself quitting medicine until the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when I realized I was absolutely miserable in every aspect of my life."

Kristen Fuller, MD

My grueling time spent in the hospital made me feel this way. I stepped away from treating patients (most likely for good) and transitioned to medical writing/reviewing full-time in 2020.

What I do and don’t miss

Do I regret it? Sometimes. I miss the good parts of caring for patients:

  • Saving lives

  • Educating patients and their families on chronic disease

  • Helping people modify their lifestyles to live healthier lives

  • Seeing patients recover from terrible illness

  • The innate feeling that I was doing good in the world

However, I don’t miss the extreme stress, burnout, sleepless nights, emotional toll, angry patients, administrative work, and how society treats physicians.

I'm not alone in making this choice. According to an article published in October 2022 by Modern Healthcare, 117,000 physicians left their roles in 2021 due to retirement, burnout, and other pandemic-related stressors.[]

Quitting medicine is not often discussed, especially when those who leave medicine realize they regret it.

"Change is hard, especially when you have invested time and money into your career."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Perhaps you have sacrificed relationships with loved ones and lost time with family and friends. You missed weddings, funerals, and birthdays. Yet you may feel pressure that the noble thing to do is “stick it out” and keep your feelings to yourself, believing that nobody wants to hear a doctor complaining about their job.

Reasons doctors regret quitting

According to a study published in JAMA in 2018, 14.1% of 3,751 residents said they would not choose to become doctors again.[] In addition, 7.1% of respondents said they would definitely or probably not select the same specialty, given the opportunity to choose again.

If some physicians regret choosing a career in medicine, why do they also feel regret after leaving it?

  • Pride. We pride ourselves on hard work and being healers. When we quit, we may lose this sense of pride. Can you still call yourself a doctor if you’re no longer practicing medicine or working in your specialty?

  • Money. People don’t necessarily become doctors for the money, but some stay because of it. Although becoming a physician may not be the quickest or best way to develop wealth, if you stay in it long enough, there is potential to earn a high income. Quitting could mean leaving that salary behind. It may be challenging to find a comparable paycheck in another career, leading to regret.

  • The grass is not any greener. Physicians who quit clinical medicine often go into other careers—some associated with medicine, others not. Medical education, corporate physician jobs, insurance medicine, healthcare consulting, medical writing/editing, expert witness/medical malpractice expert work, physician inventor, and telemedicine are all avenues physicians could consider after quitting clinical medicine, according to an article published by Wheel.[3] But doctors may not feel happier in another line of work.

Working through feelings of regret

If you left clinical medicine and regret it, think about whether you will be happier going back to medicine. Consider the following questions:

  • Why did you quit?

  • Why do you want to go back?

  • How has your life changed for the better since quitting? Or for the worse?

  • What do you miss about practicing medicine?

  • Are you still licensed, and can you return to practicing medicine?

  • Would you consider changing your practice environment (such as switching from inpatient to outpatient care or going from full- to part-time work)?

  • Do you think these feelings of regret are temporary?

  • Do you regret specific parts of leaving medicine or the entire decision?

"Feelings of regret can be isolating, destructive, and shaming."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Acknowledge these feelings and try to understand why they are happening. Be proactive about doing something about them. This can mean discussing them with a therapist, re-entering clinical practice, or finding other healthy means of self-fulfillment.

You made the choice to quit. Give yourself grace, patience, and compassion while you work through the aftermath of leaving. Happiness is not instant. It is something we must work extremely hard to obtain and sustain.

Read Next: Real Talk: When you’re just doing it for the money

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

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