Why is it that physicians are seeking alternative avenues to boost their income? It may seem counterintuitive for busy clinical doctors to pursue a side gig, why? In a post-pandemic era, physicians are plagued by colossal debt and increasing rates of burnout. More than 100,000 physicians have left the profession since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. My peers are frustrated, tired, and seeking a way out. For many, side gig income offers them an exit ramp. Here is why every doctor should have a side gig.
The doctor’s dilemma
To the rest of the world, physicians are rich. What most misunderstand is that a majority of physicians are drowning in debt. The average graduating medical student carries roughly $203,000 in educational debt. Physicians receive a delayed start when it comes to building their retirement too. Physicians with longer training periods commonly are in their mid-thirties before they reach their income potential.
True, our time in education is an investment toward a high-paying career, but to what end? While doctors are hindered from building a nest egg until midlife, others have saved for a decade or more. Following completion of training, doctors spend the next five to ten years climbing out of debt. The weight of their loan repayment, complicated by demanding careers, has created ample tinder necessary for disaster…and the pandemic was that spark.
For physicians, nurses, and health care workers alike, the pandemic forced a realization that our current work-life balance was not enough to justify the long hours, stress, nor the bipolar sentiments forced upon us by a fear-stricken nation. Many doctors love their careers, but there are limits. Side gigs offer more to the medical community than income alone. Side gigs offer medical professionals a chance to explore business interests outside of medicine… an often-welcome reprieve. These hustles are a way to diversify their portfolio while building financial security.
Diversifying your income portfolio
Most entrepreneurs (I suspect) would agree with the fact that diversifying your cash flow is a good thing. Though doctors’ incomes are their financial superpower, it also allows them to invest their money in other means of income generation.
Enter the side gig. Side gigs (or side hustles) are an individual’s business pursuits to create a revenue stream in addition to their primary profession. For example, I have taken up blogging, writing as The Motivated M.D. I hope to utilize the platform I have created to interact with peers with similar financial struggles while monetizing the website. For others, side gigs may take the form of podcasting, creating online courses, real estate investing, and many more. These hustles are not always lucrative, but they provide a means for doctors not to be reliant on their medical careers to maintain their lifestyles.
Financial security may seem guaranteed in health care professions … but nothing is certain. It is appropriate to assume that individuals will always have health concerns. With advances in modern medicine, those individuals are living longer while accumulating more comorbidities. This means each subsequent patient cared for is generally older and more complicated. This continues to place more stress on an already burdened health care system.
If doctors can generate income through dividend investing, creation of digital products, or real estate, this offers a monetary pathway to offset their clinical burden. Maybe they don’t pick up that extra shift? Perhaps they don’t need to be on call so much. The income afforded through a profitable side hustle can cultivate opportunities that contractual negotiation often cannot.
Expediting financial independence
As I alluded to, doctors are often delayed in building their retirement savings. While it is true that physicians are salaried while in residency training, reimbursement is commonly well below the U.S. median household income based on 2021 census data. Therefore, once doctors complete their training, they are behind their non-physician peers regarding retirement savings.
Side gigs for physicians create pathways for doctors to “catch up.” Side gig income generation is variable, but the ability to see your net worth improve faster than it otherwise would is relieving. This can be especially true for those exiting training with educational debt. Moreover, a subset of the physician population wishes to go a step further; reaching financial independence and retiring early. This is often referred to as the FIRE movement.
Live like a resident
For doctors, there are a few ways to expedite FIRE. One is to live drastically below their means. This can mean saving 50 percent or more of your annual income. “Live like a resident,” it is often called. Treat your expenses as if you are still in training for 5 to 10 years following the completion of your education. This is one way you can expedite financial freedom. This strategy is simple, but it is not easy. It can be financially, mentally, and emotionally challenging to ask an individual who has delayed their income potential for decades to restrict their quality of life for another decade.
Another avenue is the creation of a business. For doctors with the time, grit, and initial capital, a side gig can evolve into a business that generates revenue in tandem with their medical careers. This is a great way to expedite financial independence. It can also offer an outlet for those plagued by burnout in a challenging profession.
As mentioned above, the global pandemic has placed immense strain on an already stressed health care system. Individuals across all positions in the medical community have felt this pressure. It has led to a mass exodus from the profession, which is not limited to the medical profession alone.
Though altruism is critical to careers in health care, it can be a finite resource. Rely too heavily on the altruism of others, and you risk extinguishing the very fire that invigorates their calling. Burnout is quickly becoming the most pressing crises of modern health care professions. Generating other streams of income is not the fix that our health care system needs, but for many individuals, it offers an outlet when their profession asks too much of them.
Take home points
I am sure there will be many who read this article and disagree. I welcome those responses. For others, myself included, the medical profession has not lived up to all of my expectations. Do not mistake me; I love caring for patients. I enjoy the investigative work necessary to treat a disease appropriately. But the financial milestones I thought attainable solely through a career in medicine have left me … wanting.
Entrepreneurship can come in many shapes. For physicians, it may be a passion or a hobby extension. For others, a necessity. Whatever your financial footing, it is sound advice to cultivate multiple revenue streams. For physicians catering to a stressed health care system, it can offer an exit ramp. I suspect you will continue to find more doctors and health care professionals taking up the entrepreneurial charge. Every doctor should have a side gig.
The author is an anonymous physician who can be reached at The Motivated M.D.