Should we look down on physicians who retire early?

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published January 13, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Almost 30% of physicians retire between the ages of 60 and 65. An additional 12% of doctors hang up their white coat for good before their 60th birthday.

  • Many physicians who achieve financial independence and pursue early retirement receive criticism, not congratulations, for leaving their patients and their practice at a retirement age typically younger than those of their colleagues.

  • Physicians contemplating early retirement should consider whether they’re still happy in their practice, if they have quality health insurance, and if they know what type of retirement lifestyle they’re looking for, among other factors.

While early retirement is considered the “ultimate success story” for many professions, it may be a different story for doctors. Many who pursue early retirement are met with disapproval, according to an article published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).[]

Those who do must consider if they’re ready to stop working, and determine how they’d like to spend their retirement years.

Physicians often get heat for retiring early

At least 12% of physicians retire before they turn 60, while close to 30% retire between the ages of 60–65, as reported by the AMA.[]

Doctors who retire early receive scorn from several angles, according to the CMAJ article.

Patients don’t want to go through the process of finding a new doctor. Colleagues don’t want to have to pick up extra hours, and employers don’t want to recruit new hires.

Physicians are also seemingly held to a different standard than people in other professions.

James Dahle, MD, emergency physician in Utah, and founder of The White Coat Investor, spoke to the pressure that doctors feel throughout their career.

“There are a lot of expectations on docs that aren’t fair—be available 24/7, don’t go on vacation, pay more for licenses and education, give more to charity and other needs, work for free,” Dr. Dahle told CMAJ

"Some docs get sick of it and go do something else. Some get sick of it and just retire. Most stick it out and deal with it, hopefully making small changes that reduce its impact and the subsequent burnout."

James Dahle, MD, in CMAJ

Indeed, physicians may work 60- to 70-hour weeks throughout their career. To some, this may seem justified, since earning a medical degree is a privilege largely made affordable by government subsidies.

No regrets

The grind that the job entails, however, is one of the reasons why Anthony Ellis, MD, feels no remorse about retiring at the age of 58.

“With an average work week of 60 hours, I had a ‘job and a half’ my entire career,” Dr. Ellis wrote in an article published by The White Coat Investor.[]

"It's as if I completed about 48 years’ worth of work in my 32 years."

Anthony Ellis, MD, The White Coat Investor

“Personally, I felt like that was enough,” Dr. Ellis continued. “I want to spend more time on family, leisure, and my own wellness. There are myriad activities I enjoy, and I would like to spend more time doing these while I still can.”

Early retirement considerations

Regardless of what others might say, when a physician retires is their decision—and one that requires careful consideration.

According to the AMA article, physicians who want to retire early should think about:

  • Whether you still enjoy your job. If you don’t, let that be a motivator to start planning. If you do, try to wait. Just be sure not to push it off too long, as health problems may emerge that could prevent you from enjoying retirement.

  • The quality of health insurance you’ll have. Retiring before you’re eligible for Medicare could lead you to burn through your savings, especially if you have health needs that aren’t covered by your insurance. Be sure you can afford healthcare costs if you’re years away from Medicare eligibility.

  • What you want your retirement to look like. The earlier you retire, the healthier your savings account should be. If you plan on spending your days pursuing long-awaited leisure activities, make sure to secure the funds to do so with ease.

  • Working with a financial adviser. These advisers can be very helpful in navigating your finances. They can give you an idea of how much money you’ll need to enjoy retirement on your terms. They can also help you determine when to retire and provide different action plans based on the “what-ifs” of your future.

  • Whether you’ll be working or volunteering part-time. After a fulfilling career in medicine, it may be harder to walk away than you think. That’s why many retired physicians recommend incrementally cutting hours instead of leaving entirely or having hobbies or volunteer work lined up when you leave.

These are just a few basic factors to consider, along with any others pertaining to individualized needs and family affairs.

“Every individual can choose their retirement age based on their own needs and those of their family,” Dr. Ellis wrote.

"Nothing anyone else says about your retirement date should mean anything to you. It is yours. To each their own."

Anthony Ellis, MD, The White Coat Investor

What this means for you

Every physician is entitled to make a retirement decision that best serves them—especially after spending upwards of 20 or 30 years in service to others. If you’re interested in retiring early, be sure that you’re ready to leave your practice. Secure quality health insurance, consult with a financial adviser, and start envisioning what you’d like this next chapter of life to look like.

Read Next: Physicians put off retirement: Here’s why

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