What to do if you don't want to practice clinical medicine

By Alistair Gardiner
Published November 22, 2021

Key Takeaways

Have you ever considered walking out of the clinic and not looking back? Then you’re not alone. According to a 2021 nonclinical physician careers report, one in five physicians are thinking about leaving their primary jobs in medicine for a career outside of the clinic.

The survey of roughly 2,500 doctors included questions about why clinicians are contemplating quitting medicine, as well as queries on what they plan on doing with their post-clinic lives. And many of the survey’s findings have been corroborated or contextualized by recent studies, which indicate that the physician exodus is the result of a variety of factors, from financial issues to work/life balance to pandemic-related stress.

Here’s a brief examination of why doctors are leaving their clinical jobs and where they're going, along with some advice on the steps physicians should take if they’re planning a shift away from medicine. 

Why doctors are leaving their clinical jobs behind

Burnout is the No. 1 reason physicians are looking to leave medicine for non-clinical jobs, according to the above-mentioned physician survey, published by Medscape. Intriguingly, 34% of respondents who were considering quitting cited burnout as the primary driver—but not from COVID-19; 7% specifically cited pandemic-related burnout as the determinant pushing them to quit. 

Another 20% said they want a job in an industry that doesn’t require such long hours. Beyond that, 5% said they were thinking about finding work that paid better, and 7% said that clinical work didn’t match their expectations. 

Some specialists were more likely than others to want to quit. Nearly a quarter of those considering a move practiced family medicine, another 14% worked in internal medicine, and 9% worked in emergency medicine. Motivation for quitting also varied by gender. More women than men (39% vs 30%) were considering quitting due to burnout. On the other hand, more men than women said they wanted a job where they could earn more money and work fewer hours.

Researchers have recently examined some of these factors individually. A study published in JAMA Network in September explored the disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic had on medical practices across the United States. Researchers noted a spike in April 2020, during which roughly 7% of practices (accounting for over 34,000 physicians) had stopped seeing all or some patients. “Practice interruptions in the treatment of Medicare patients during 2020 exceeded those in 2019 and were concentrated in April—coinciding with the nadir of outpatient clinical volume due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the authors wrote.

Most, but not all, of the interruptions were temporary. “The pandemic appears to have impeded return to practice more for older physicians than for younger physicians, consistent with anecdotal reports and survey findings regarding intent to close practices, retire, or otherwise transition away from clinical medicine.” 

The US and International Physicians' COVID-19 Experience Report, published by Medscape in 2020, made a deeper inquiry into how the pandemic affected physicians. Respondents illustrated a perfect storm of financial woes, burnout, and emotional exhaustion.

During June and July 2020, 7,414 physicians responded to the survey (including 5,000 from the United States), and 62% said their incomes had decreased since the beginning of the pandemic. About 64% reported higher burnout since the pandemic started. Overall, 25% of physicians said they were planning to retire earlier as a result of their experiences treating patients with COVID-19, and 12% said they were considering leaving medicine.

Click here to read more about why doctors are leaving medicine, on MDLinx

Where they're going

Many physicians (42%) thinking about leaving the clinic were considering turning to teaching. Others were contemplating careers in nonclinical healthcare (34%), writing (27%), and the pharmaceutical industry (20%). 

An article published by NEJM Career Service in 2019 notes that common nonclinical jobs for former doctors include drug development and consulting, medical technology and informatics, hospital leadership, health insurance, and positions in regulatory agencies. Read more about nonclinical side hustles here

Tips for doctors considering taking the leap

The NEJM Career Service article lists several pieces of advice gleaned from physicians who left the clinic for another career:

  • Explore your options thoroughly, and think carefully about why you’re leaving medicine and what you want to do instead. You can find plenty of resources to help you explore a new line of work on the web and on social media. It may help to talk this through with a neutral party, who can offer insight without an agenda.

  • Focus on networking, which can be critical in getting your foot in the door and opening a new path.

  • Don’t quit until it’s the right time. According to the NEJM Career Service article, you should plan on a minimum 2-year transition period, during which you may need to gain new skills and create contacts for your new career. 

  • Be prepared to handle pushback from colleagues and mentors, and don't let it put you off making a change if you believe that is the right thing for you to do. 

It may also help to attend a conference on nonclinical careers designed for physicians, or seek career coaching/consulting (39% of survey respondents had pursued the latter). You can also find future career paths through specialist podcasts, online seminars, or through an industry headhunter. 

Bottom line

At times, it may feel like you’ll never find the nonclinical job you want. But don’t despair; as noted in an article published by ASH Clinical News in 2020, the skills and knowledge that physicians acquire are essential for almost any organization that has to interact with the healthcare system. That means there are jobs that you’re very likely qualified for in fields like biotechnology, law, benefits management, medical writing, and more.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter