The first time I thought about quitting medicine was after an 18-hour shift in residency, during which I experienced so much trauma and sadness that I knew I'd reached my breaking point.
I wanted out, but everyone around me kept telling me to suck it up for one more year. So I did.
Years later, COVID-19 happened—another deep, dark trench we doctors endured while sacrificing our own physical and mental health.
"In April 2020, I took a step back from clinical medicine. I haven't been back since."
— Kristen Fuller, MD
I loved bedside medicine, adored my patients, took pride in my work, and found so much joy in helping people. But it was all overshadowed by the dark side of the “business of medicine.”
It turns out that I’m not alone in these feelings.
A look at the numbers
As physicians, we live in the thick of death and stress. We tend to hope for the best while preparing for the worst. We often want to throw in the towel.
One out of 5 physicians say they'll most likely leave their current practice within 2 years.
Approximately 1 in 3 physicians and other HCPs say they intend to drastically reduce work hours over the next year.
According to data published by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the US could experience an estimated shortfall of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034. This could include shortages in primary and specialty doctors.
Why physicians quit
Although COVID-19 has created challenges for physicians, only 7% put the blame for leaving clinical practice specifically on the pandemic.
Arguments with insurance companies, lack of physician autonomy, treading through the bureaucratic red tape of medicine, hostile and angry patients, lack of support from hospital administration, and not being able to practice the art of bedside medicine all have made us unable to function.
"Physicians aren’t quitting because we can't handle our jobs. We’re quitting because we cannot handle being unable to do our jobs."
— Kristen Fuller, MD
In addition to the stress and burnout of being a physician, these factors have left many doctors (including myself) walking out of the hospital doors, to never re-enter.
Where are physicians going?
Physicians are resilient. We went through years of school, training, and practice; we’ve seen tragedy, joy, and some of the most unimaginable things.
So it’s no surprise that we’re finding other avenues for making a living while maintaining our sanity and rebuilding our happiness. Studies show that many physicians who left bedside medicine are entering into teaching, writing, the business side of healthcare, concierge medicine, and consulting.
Although this transition’s daunting, challenging, and may require some adjustment time, it’s pretty surprising how many non-clinical jobs for physicians are out there.Related: Don't miss out on these physician side hustles
Factors to consider
There are so many factors at play, not only about what's best for you, but also what's best for the patient population? If we all quit medicine, who would treat sick patients?
"Taking a step back from clinical medicine is a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly."
— Kristen Fuller, MD
Here are some things to consider before you take the big leap.
First, decide if you really want to leave medicine. What is driving this idea? Think about the patients and co-workers you'll miss. Will you experience the void of "not helping people"?
Are your feelings being driven by your current work situation? Perhaps it's your administration, specialty, location, or another factor that has you watching the door.
Consider if it's worth looking for another employer, working for locum tenens, switching from outpatient to inpatient medicine, or even changing specialties, rather than quitting medicine altogether.
Feelings of burnout, depression, and anxiety can cloud your perspective. Consider seeing a mental health practitioner to work through your feelings.
Consult with a mentor or career coach in addition to family friends; don't make this big decision in a vacuum.
Do a financial check on yourself. Some of us carry huge student loan debt. Determine if you can afford to leave medicine, as you’ll most likely take a giant pay cut (at least temporarily) if you do.
Do you have a game plan for after you leave medicine? What will quitting allow you to do? Will you be happier? Will you spend more time pursuing other passions?
Finally, if you are feeling unsure, remember that don't have to make the decision overnight. Consider taking time off to evaluate what you want (and need) from your career. You can always take a step back from full-time clinical medicine by cutting back hours or slowly easing into a non-clinical medical side gig.
And remember, if you do make the choice to walk out of those hospital doors one last time, they will likely reopen for you—if you feel inclined to re-enter them.Read Next: Real Talk: When physicians struggle with mental illness
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.