Advice for doctors who want to change careers

An interview by MedCrunch with Ashley Wendel, MA, CMC, PDC, a Physician Executive Coach and Healthcare Organization Consultant dedicated to helping physicians create meaningful and sustainable change that positively impacts their professional lives.

MC: Thank you so much Ashley for your time!

Ashley: Thank you, I’m really happy to share anything I can.

MC: You are a physician coach, what are the most common problems you encounter in your practice?

Ashley: Well, for many of the physicians who find me, their biggest issue is that they are feeling somewhat lost in their professional lives. We hear a lot about the churn and uncertainty in healthcare right now (certainly in the U.S.), but this is more personal. I often talk to docs who feel unfulfilled in daily clinical work and they know that they are unhappy… often they’ve been unhappy for a very long time in clinical practice but they don’t know how to make the change that they need. And this of course is no small thing! As we know, it often isn’t easy (or even possible) for these physicians to discuss their desire to leave clinical medicine with their family, friends or colleagues. A lot of times they may have been trying to make progress in one direction or another, but have spent a lot of time going it alone (and a lot of late nights in front of the computer searching for something they not really sure of … ), and are feeling really frustrated with a lack of progress … and also a little insecure over their own ability to “cross-over” to another industry or professional role. I’m always happy when people find me, because it shows me that they are still able to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that with help they can get there.

MC: What are the things that are holding back physicians who are thinking about changing careers?

Ashley: This is a very complex question, and very different for each individual. Collectively though, I have heard certain “themes” in my work with my clients, as well as from other coach colleagues who do work in this area as well. It tends to boil down to both external and internal barriers that many physicians hit up against. The external barriers typically have a lot to do with expectations … from family, colleagues, and even society itself. Many docs I talk to feel very trapped by other peoples’ opinions and feelings around being a physician … and what it would mean to those folks if they “weren’t” a doctor anymore. This is particularly true for people who come from a long lineage of physicians in their families … I often hear their decision to become a doctor and their subsequent training described as a “train they couldn’t get off”, and now they find themselves 10-15 years into clinical practice and are miserable.

One other external factor that tends to be a fairly significant barrier for a lot of docs is that many (most) of them have been in practice for a while and find themselves at a fairly healthy earnings plateau … one that may be difficult to replicate outside of medicine. For some this is a deal breaker, which is completely understandable. For others they see this as an opportunity and a challenge to go beyond their earning potential now and do something greater… it just depends.

The internal barriers tend to be a little trickier. Again it seems to come back to expectations, but this time it is the doc’s own expectation of him or herself … and this can be one of the strongest traps. I’ve heard some have difficulty with the idea of giving up a respected role in society, or being able to see themselves as anything other than a practicing physician. Sometimes they may feel like they would be abandoning the community that they dedicated themselves to serving, and in a way feel “selfish” that they would not be applying the skills they were trained to use. There is of course a pride factor as well, and funnily enough this is often coupled with a myriad of unspoken fears … that others may think that they were “forced” out of medicine, that they somehow feel like they would have failed because they didn’t reach a certain level of specialization, that they don’t have the skills to do any other kind of work … just to name a few. Sometimes it is just plain old fear of the unknown.

I often tell my clients that to gain clarity they must assess their own drivers for wanting to change careers and weigh them against their own, unique barriers. Figure out which way the balance tips. If the balance tips towards the drivers (which often include very positive things like wanting to do something bigger, or having a great product idea that you want to take to market) and outweighs the barriers, then you are on your way. If the barriers are just too high at this time, then it is time to consider what other kinds of things you can change in your life to move forward. Only in this way will you be able to fully assess your own willingness and readiness to make this kind of change in your life.

MC: What would you recommend to a physician who feels stuck in his clinical job, who wants to change something about her clinical career but just does not know what to do and how to do it?

Ashley: One of my biggest pieces of advice is to simply start at the beginning. Many docs – especially those who are proactive, energetic and excited about change – want to start by looking for online job postings, sending out their CVs, and contacting recruiters. The problem is, if they are not clear exactly what industry or role is a good fit for them in the long-term [i.e., what fits their values, passions and unique abilities] have done the work to understand where they could add value based on their unique combination of skills and experience, and be able to articulate those things to potential employers, their initial efforts at a career change will at best be unfocused, inefficient and not likely to produce the results they are seeking. At worst they will find themselves in a new role that is misaligned with who they are and what they care about as well as a poor fit for their skills, and a year later they find themselves just as miserable as they were in clinical practice. I never want to see this happen – leaving clinical medicine is too big of a decision to do it without all the data you can.

So my advice is to spend time getting to know yourself first. While some of my clients have balked at getting introspective in the beginning, they have all agreed how critical the knowledge is to ensuring that they’re moving in the right direction for themselves, and their families. It is all about sustainability and fulfillment, that’s my goal.

The second biggest piece of advice I have is plan, plan, plan … it will get you everywhere. There is power in implementing a structured approach to your career exploration and transition. Find a mentor, a friend, or a coach to help you do that. Physicians in my experience often try to go it alone, because this is what they’ve been taught to do – don’t speak out on anything until you’re an expert, don’t ask for help. But this is not something that can be done in isolation … having that person who acts as your sounding board, resource, or active guide and that holds you accountable for progress is really important.

MC: You have worked with a lot of people inside and outside of the medical profession. Are there any key characteristics that distinguish most doctors from your non-medical clients?

Ashley: That’s a great question! You know, I find physicians overall a great group of people to work with. They are typically very driven, intelligent obviously, linear thinkers, who like a challenge … particularly the ones who are approaching their career change for very positive reasons. As far as how they compare to people outside of the medical profession, I would say that the key differentiator that I see is that the vast majority of physicians I’ve spoken to or worked with are in this profession because they want to do good for people. And that is a gift. This is often something that isn’t recognized by the physicians themselves… that their desire to improve the human condition in some way, in combination with their medical knowledge and skill, positions them to do very meaningful work. And this is true whether their work is within direct patient care or not. Their role as healers continues on past clinical practice, and it maintains its importance in society whether they are providing clinical oversight for a new medical device, or consulting with organizations on quality and patient safety.

MC: Can you recommend any books that have influenced you in some major way?

Ashley: There are many good ones out there. I think the ones that I would highlight and that I often refer to my clients include “The Speed of Trust” by Stephen M.R. Covey … to demonstrate how a sense of trust affects everything from relationships to economics, “Crucial Conversations,” by Kerry Patterson, to give you tools on successfully navigating difficult conversations – when emotions run high and opinions differ, and “Working With Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman on why the “soft skills” will get you further and higher than anything else … Just to name a few. I have a more complete list of books on my blog site if anyone is interested in others. But those are some good ones.

MC: Can you recommend any books that could help physicians who feel stuck in their careers?

Ashley: Again, there are some really good ones. A few to get you started are “Do You Feel You Wasted All That Training” by Michael McLaughlin, MD … a great book and pseudo-mentor for any doc considering transition, and “Physicians in Transition: 25 Doctors Who Successfully Reinvented Themselves” by Richard Fernandez, MD … for a little inspiration. A couple of others that may help get the creative juices flowing are “The 4-Hour Work Week” by Timothy Ferriss and “The Millionaire Messenger” by Brendon Burchard.

MC: What is the best advice you received from a mentor?

Ashley: Wow. Well, I think that one of the best things a mentor ever shared with me is the criticality of doing work that resonates with you inside and out. Meaning, find a need out there that resonates with you and that you feel passionate about … and fill it. Do it well, and be of service, and the money will fall into place. In my case this has been helping physicians unlock their potential and find professional fulfillment, and I love doing it. It is about connecting your unique abilities, experience and passion to something that others need and want, something that the market will bear, and delivering value. You do this, and you will find a meaningful career. Someone a long time ago told me that, and he was right!

MC: Thank you so much for your time and all the best for your future projects!

Ashley: You’re so welcome! I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you and I wish you all the best as well.

Franz Wiesbauer is a physician who blogs at MedCrunch.

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