How physicians can retire the right way

To paraphrase General MacArthur, old doctors never retire, they just fade away. Despite having greater than average financial resources and more burdensome than average work load, many doctors seem to have a hard time knowing when it is time to call it quits. I know doctors who continue to practice into their 70s and 80s. Some continue to work until the day they die. Why is this?

I think that some docs feel that it is somehow ignoble to leave the profession, that they would be abandoning their patients if they retire. Certainly many doctors enjoy what they do, deriving a sense of satisfaction from their work. They take pride in their skills that have taken thousands of hours to master. Some enjoy the social status, diminishing though that it is, that comes from being a doctor. Some have matched their lifestyle to their income, and think they can’t do without the money that they are making. Some are hooked on the adrenaline rush that comes from opening a clogged artery in the middle of the night and saving a life, or ablating an arrhythmia and changing someone’s life for the better.

Others are afraid to retire, or don’t know how to do it. An older doctor told me that he was afraid he would become senile if he stopped being a doctor. Implicit in this statement is the assumption that there is no other form of mental stimulation for a doctor other than being a doctor. Another physician told me he had no idea what he would do if he stopped working. I pictured him sitting in a chair at home, 24/7, with cobwebs forming on his immobile body. Do doctors invest so much of their heart and soul into medicine that, without the practice of medicine, they are nothing more than empty husks?

Like John Elway of the Denver Broncos, who retired after winning his 2nd Super Bowl title, it is better to retire at or near the top of your game, rather than hanging on until your skills diminish and you have overstayed your welcome. Retire while you are still healthy and active enough to enjoy life. Don’t wait until it is too late. Unless you believe in reincarnation, you only have this life to do the things on your bucket list.

How to retire? Check with your financial adviser. If he or she says you have enough money to retire you should strongly consider retiring. Sure you love medicine. But think about the parts you don’t love. The devastation that comes when a patient has a serious complication from a procedure. The threat of lawsuits. Maintenance of certification (MOC). Learning multiple electronic health record systems at different hospitals. Being called at 2 a.m. to go over drug reconciliation lists. Going through 8th grade level online fire safety training mandated by the hospital that now owns your practice. You get the idea. Even if you love medicine, I bet you don’t love it like you used to.

I retired this year at age 62. I finished medical school in 1976 and spent the intervening 38 years working as a physician, specifically as a cardiac electrophysiologist after I completed my fellowship. During that time I was on call probably an average of at least one night a week and had at most 2 weeks of vacation in a row (except for one time when I was off for a month between jobs). I like cardiac electrophysiology. I like the intellectual and technical challenges in the field. I got high from the adrenaline kick of being a highly specialized physician. But like any addiction, the long-term negative health hazards outweigh the short-term enjoyment, and as with drug addicts, the addiction takes over your life.

What can you do when you retire? All the things you neglected because the practice of medicine consumed your life. The day after I retired my wife and I moved to Paris, France. I am taking french lessons at the Alliance Française. There is nothing like sitting in a classroom again and making friends with young people from countries such as Syria, Iran, Poland, Brazil and elsewhere. I am also working on improving my programming skills, working on more mobile apps and expanding into Web apps. Using the Internet, I am taking free online courses on subjects I am interested in, such as cryptography. I am travelling around Europe and seeing places I never visited before. I am reading books I have always wanted to read. I am living in a city where major concert artists come to perform regularly. I don’t miss the daily grind of medicine.

As Ian Fleming wrote, you only live twice. I’m liking my second go-around. If you are a physician reticent to retire, I urge you to take some time to think about all the things you like doing, or might like doing, but can’t do because of your work. Go back to school and learn something because you are interested in it, not because you have to. Think outside the box. Consider spending an extended period of time in another country. It is a great way to reboot your life.

Don’t become the cath lab cowboy who dies with his boots on.

David Mann is a retired cardiac electrophysiologist and blogs at EP Studios.

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