Physicians who pursue financial independence and early retirement are not wrong. It may save them.

When Jason Kilar graduated from college he experienced tremendous personal and professional adversity.  Three days after graduation, Kilar’s father ended his own life after battling bipolar disorder.

Kilar also battled professional valleys. In the months after graduation,  the work-life he had long envisioned couldn’t have seemed further from the reality he faced.

After building shelves at a local store and hustling to find a job that he actually loved, this is what Jason says about that time right after graduation during a commencement speech at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Upon graduating from business school … with a debt level that approximated Slovenia’s gross domestic product … I jumped into a modestly salaried role at a relatively small private company in the Pacific Northwest that was trying to sell stuff over the internet …  My friend’s and family thought I was insane to go there given the uncertainty and the traditional opportunities I was forgoing …

The company Kilar is referring to is Amazon.  Little known at the time, but I bet you’ve heard of it now.  He learned under the wings of one of the best-growing companies of our time, and after leaving went on to create Hulu.

However, none of this would have happened if Jason Kilar hadn’t ignored the naysayers. If he had listened, Jason might still be building and stocking those shelves at that local store.

Doctors pursuing financial independence and retiring early (FIRE) can probably relate to some of Jason’s story.  Whether you and I like it or not, there are people who would argue that chasing after FIRE is wrong, particularly when it comes to doctors.

Let’s take some of the most common arguments – one by one – and see if they hold any water.

“If you plan to retire early, medical school should never have let you in”

“Well, if you were only planning on working for ten or fifteen years, maybe your medical school shouldn’t have wasted a spot on you!”

It’s this sort of inflammatory rhetoric that makes me weary of sharing FIRE principles with other (non-trainee) people in real life.  People get so passionate about the topic that discussing FIRE has burned many bridges.

The reason that these people are sippin’ so hard on their hater-ade is that they feel you took a medical school spot from someone else that would have spent more time in their life furthering “the cause.”

It’s wrong for doctors to retire early! Right?

They view the FIRE movement as inherently selfish.  Clearly, you can’t FIRE and be thinking about anyone else except yourself.  I never knew that there were so many mind-readers out there!

A reasonable answer 

The idea here is preposterous.  How many years of working in medicine would be acceptable, then?  Twenty? Thirty?  Til you die?

Oh, and by the way, some of us also plan on using our medical skills long after our full-time work is done.  When I finally FIRE, I’ll be spending ample time on the mission field teaching others how to provide safe anesthesia.  Hopefully, all over the world.  So selfish.

While I am on my rant, let me point out the fact that our medical training perpetually fails our trainees in preparing them on how to obtain both wealth and wellness.  I don’t see any major movement by the “establishment” to fix physician suicide, burnout, or poor financial literacy.

“You are not dedicated to your patients”

This one is pretty cutthroat.  Telling a doctor that they don’t care about their patients is cold.  Even still, I’ve heard people say it.

The premise is that if you are trying to achieve early financial independence, you must be trying to retire early. And, if you are retiring early, you will be hanging all of your potential patients out to dry.

Finding a good doctor is already hard enough for most patients.  Why would you leave them in their time of need?

A reasonable answer  

Simply because some of us are trying to achieve financial independence, does not mean that we are trying to retire early.  We might not be leaving our patients at all.

In fact, I would argue that a financially independent doctor is a better physician.

Taking care of the doctor helps take care of the patient.  In a crashing airplane, you put your oxygen on first so that you can help others.  It’s no different here.

“What about the doctor shortage?”

The argument made here is a bit more complicated.

“Aren’t you worried about the doctor shortage?  If you retire early, won’t that make the doctor shortage worse?”

But are we really creating a worse doctor shortage?

A reasonable answer

First of all, let’s point out that this problem exists not because too many board-certified docs retire, but because not enough are created.

There are loads of people who apply for medical school every year.  Many of those that finish medical school get sent into perpetual rounds of internship, because they cannot match into a residency after becoming a doctor.

The bottleneck is not created by early retirees, it is created by the ACGME for limiting the number of nationally available residency slots.  There are an abundance of allopathic and osteopathic physicians out there looking for meaningful work after medical school.

Holding on for a later retirement isn’t going to fix this problem. Fixing the bottleneck will.

There is a much more pragmatic and rampant problem happening in medicine though.  It’s called physician burnout, and I am here to tell you that financial independence can help fix that even if it can’t fix the doctor shortage.

Take home

Like Jason Kilar, I encourage you to ignore the naysayers. Pursuing financial independence is not wrong. And it just may save you.

Instead, make it a goal to achieve early financial independence for the right reasons: decreasing burnout and increasing autonomy … both of which lead to better care for our patients.

That’s what I call putting our patients first.

“The Physician Philosopher” is an anesthesiologist who blogs at his self-titled site, The Physician Philosopher.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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