Our profession, as physicians, is medicine. This holds true regardless of career path or job title.
The knowledge earned through medical training is ours to keep. Barring significant brain injury or dementia, our medical experience will always shape our thinking and decision-making. It can be influential and even critical to jobs outside of traditional patient care settings.
Medical care provided to patients is informed by many external factors, such as the availability of treatment and technology, the extent to which the cost of services will be covered by a payer, and even patient preconceptions about their disease. The resources dedicated to these factors are substantial, and physician involvement ultimately supports clinicians and health care facilities in delivering appropriate services at the point of care. Beyond direct patient care, it supports the services and products that promote overall health and disease prevention.
The role of the nonclinical physician
Organizations hire physicians for nonclinical positions for many reasons. One physician’s job may have little in common with a physician’s job in another industry, company, or even division within the same company. Nonetheless, nonclinical roles share a broad goal: to improve health or reduce the disease burden of individuals or populations. Physicians in these roles accomplish this by assisting an organization in delivering high-quality, evidence-based health-related services or products to either consumers or the health care system.
What is nonclinical work?
The term nonclinical refers to work that doesn’t involve directly diagnosing and treating patients.
In most cases, nonclinical jobs don’t require an active medical license, because the physician doesn’t engage in the actual practice of medicine when carrying out the job’s tasks. However, as you’ll see in upcoming chapters, there are exceptions to this. Exceptions usually arise in health care services delivery settings in which nonclinical physician staff do, from time to time, get involved in making individual patient care decisions. In these cases, the requirement for a medical license has less to do with specific job responsibilities and more to do with liability.
A physician’s job can combine clinical and nonclinical work. This book focuses on careers in which there tend to be opportunities for jobs that are entirely nonclinical.
Nonclinical career misconceptions
A handful of misconceptions about nonclinical work cause many physicians to hesitate over transitioning to a nonclinical job.
Misconception #1: Nonclinical careers are for physicians who are burned out.
Nonclinical careers are for physicians whose professional interests are best aligned with nonclinical work and whose goals are most likely to be attained through nonclinical work.
Ideally, burnout or simple dissatisfaction with clinical work shouldn’t be the main driver of transitioning to a nonclinical career.
Leaving a clinical job can be advantageous for some physicians experiencing burnout. But taking a proactive approach to finding a fulfilling career is much more advantageous. This entails establishing professional goals and taking time to reflect on what brings you joy. It requires acknowledging stress, discontent, or disengagement that may progress to burnout, and taking action to address these warning signs. The best action may or may not be leaving a clinical job for a nonclinical job.
Misconception #2: If physicians take nonclinical jobs, there won’t be enough doctors left to care for patients.
A report from the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a shortage of as many as 121,900 physicians by 2032. However, the primary drivers of the predicted shortage are population aging and growth. Over 40% of the physician workforce is at risk for retiring over the next decade. The U.S. population grew by 24% between 1987 and 2007, while the number of physicians training in the United States grew by only 8%.
Of the current physician workforce of just over 900,000, 1.3% work in public administration, 0.3% work in pharmaceuticals or scientific research and development, 0.3% work in management and scientific consulting services, and 0.1% work in insurance industries. Nonclinical physicians make up only a small percentage of the physician workforce. Shifts in these figures are unlikely to have a substantial impact on the availability of physicians to treat patients.
Misconception #3: Working outside of clinical medicine is “selling out.”
The opportunities in nonclinical medicine are extensive. You have the ability to be selective in the nonclinical roles you accept and the companies you choose to work for. Working in a nonclinical role doesn’t mean being employed by a company with ethically questionable practices. It doesn’t mean taking on work responsibilities that discount your principles. And, when compared with clinical work, it infrequently results in personal financial gain.
Misconception #4: A physician needs many years of clinical experience to transition to a nonclinical job.
There certainly are a lot of nonclinical options for physicians with many years of clinical work under their belt. For some jobs, significant clinical experience is needed in order to be considered as an applicant and to successfully perform the duties of the job. But there also are many opportunities for physicians with limited clinical experience, as well as for those who are straight out of residency and even those who haven’t completed a residency.
Misconception #5: Doctors owe it to society to practice clinical medicine.
This last misconception would perhaps be better labeled as a conception. The notion that physicians are indebted to society is one that many doctors have internalized. Those physicians who truly believe that they have a duty to serve society by practicing clinical medicine are not the ones considering nonclinical careers.
A more reasonable belief is that we, as capable and intelligent human beings, owe a contribution to society. Any contribution to society. Nearly all of us took an oath essentially stating that we’ll honor the medical profession. As noted at the beginning of this introduction, our profession is always medicine—even when performing work outside of a clinical setting. Physicians with nonclinical careers can do as much good for humanity as those with purely clinical careers.
Sylvie Stacy is a preventive medicine physician and the author of 50 Nonclinical Careers for Physicians: Fulfilling, Meaningful, and Lucrative Alternatives to Direct Patient Care.
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