How to Navigate the Physician Retirement Conversation

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A leader in the pediatrics department for over a decade, Dr. J has an obvious passion for what he does. As a result, he is a favorite among patients and an impactful mentor to a number of other pediatricians. As he nears retirement age, administrators at the hospital are starting to worry about replacing him. They certainly don’t want him to retire, but if he’s considering it, they need time to plan. Is it okay to ask him directly? No one is sure…

These administrators are not alone. A record number of physicians are nearing retirement age, and organizations around the country are faced with this same dilemma–how to navigate the physician retirement conversation and the process that follows. It can be an uncomfortable topic, but in light of the impending wave of physician retirements, it’s imperative we answer the question of how to navigate the physician retirement process.

Physician Retirements on the Rise

According to a 2021 report published by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), nearly half (45%) of practicing physicians are over the age of 55. This means more than 2 of every 5 active physicians will reach 65 in the next ten years. While 65 isn’t necessarily the magic retirement number for everyone, it is the reported median physician retirement age. This would suggest nearly half of all physicians who are currently practicing will be retired by 2030. Unfortunately, even this may be a conservative estimate. According to a 2019 study published by AMA Insurance and highlighted by the American Medical Association, 30% of physicians retire between the ages of 60 and 65 and 12% retire before the age of 60. All of these looming retirements are one factor contributing to the worsening physician shortage.

Of course, retirement isn’t driven by age alone; factors such as physician burnout and decreasing physician job satisfaction have the potential to increase an already high volume of physician retirements projected in the coming years. A recent whitepaper from Jackson Physician Search and MGMA,  Getting Ahead of Physician Turnover in Medical Practices, reveals the results of a study that support this claim. In the survey, 43% of physicians said, over the past year, they had considered taking early retirement. Additionally, in an October 2021 MGMA STAT poll, one in three medical practices reported a physician had left or retired early in 2021 due to burnout.

The Importance of Physician Succession Planning

With so many physicians expected to retire, physician succession planning has never been more important. If following an effective succession plan, physician leaders–regardless of their retirement plans–are tasked with detailing their responsibilities and developing talent in preparation for a potential need. A good succession plan also includes regular conversations with all physicians about their job satisfaction and future career plans for the purpose of forecasting–and preparing for–potential departures.

The reality, however, is that most organizations struggle to make succession planning a priority. In the aforementioned study by MGMA and Jackson Physician Search, the survey results make it clear that while healthcare administrators are worried about rising physician turnover, very few (16%) have a formal physician succession plan to address the issue.     

3 Questions to Consider Before Initiating the Physician Retirement Conversation

Initiating a conversation about a physician’s retirement plans may feel intrusive and perhaps even inappropriate. However, clear communication on this sensitive topic is critical. In preparation for the conversion, ask yourself these three questions.    

Who Should Start the Conversation?

In a 2019 physician retirement survey, 80% of physicians said they felt it was their responsibility to initiate a conversation about their retirement, but only 52% said they felt comfortable doing so. In the same survey, 40% of physicians said it was sufficient to give six months’ notice to an employer when retiring. Conversely, 50% of administrators said a one to three-year notice period was ideal.

Certainly, the more time an employer has to plan for a physician’s retirement, the smoother the transition will be for all parties involved. Administrators who wait for physicians to initiate the retirement conversation may rob themselves of valuable time. 

Knowing this, if you are still hesitant to start a conversation about retirement, try to make physicians as comfortable as possible and provide them with ample opportunity to initiate the conversation with you. Ideally, you already have regular check-ins with your physicians in which questions about their job satisfaction and goals are the norm–regardless of their stage of life. If these types of meetings are infrequent at your organization, it may be time to consider ways to improve physician communication overall.

What is the Motivation for Starting the Conversation?

If you do decide to initiate the conversation, be sure to first consider your motivation. It is acceptable to ask about retirement for planning purposes, but be certain you are not attempting to nudge your physician towards retirement due to poor performance or as a result of other changes occurring inside the organization. Retirement should be a personal choice for the individual physician.

Because repeatedly asking about retirement could be construed as age discrimination or harassment, the Society of Human Resources Management advises seeking legal counsel before initiating a retirement conversation. 

What are the Next Steps for Each Possible Outcome?

If you are asking physicians if and when they are planning to retire, you must be prepared to support them however they answer. If retirement is not on their radar yet, great! Express appreciation for their commitment and ask them to please let you know as soon as anything changes. 

On the other hand, if they admit they have started thinking about retirement but their plans are uncertain, this is an opportunity to show support by presenting them with options. In the aforementioned JPS retirement study, only 17% of physicians said they expect to take a full-retirement and a third said they hoped to work part-time. Ask the physician about their intentions and offer physician retirement alternatives such as a shortened work week, opportunities to work telehealth, or job sharing. Be willing to make adjustments that would allow them to continue working in whatever capacity they prefer.  

If indeed the physician’s full retirement is imminent, offer congratulations and then ask for their help to make the transition easier for all involved, including patients. You’ll want them to document their duties and train another physician to take over those tasks if necessary. Consider how patients will be notified and what type of provider should be hired to replace them. The urgency of each step depends, of course, on the physician’s retirement timeline.   

If your organization is expecting a physician to retire in the next year or beyond, you may be wondering how soon you should initiate a physician search. The Recruitment Team at Jackson Physician Search would be happy to share recruitment trends by specialty so that you can more effectively plan. Contact us today.   

Medical Staff Planning: 4 Things to Consider

Increased physician retirements and other turnover means medical staff planning has never been more important. In this post, we’ll examine four considerations of medical staff planning and touch on how to apply them as you develop your medical staffing plan….

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Succession planning is the best, most proactive way to defend against the negative impact of rising physician turnover. But what exactly is a physician succession plan? Learn how to create one in 8 steps…

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3 Things to Consider Before Physician Retirement

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Are you one of the many physicians expected to retire soon? According to a 2021 report published by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), more than two of every five physicians will reach age 65 within 10 years. But of course, retirement isn’t driven by age alone; factors such as physician burnout and decreasing physician job satisfaction are likely to increase an already high volume of physician retirements projected in the coming years.  

Recent data from a Jackson Physician Search and MGMA study supports the claim. In the survey, 43% of physicians said, over the past year, they had considered taking an early retirement and an October 2021 MGMA STAT poll found one in three medical practices saw a physician leave or retire early in 2021 due to burnout

Physicians certainly have reason to feel burned out. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, physicians were dealing with long hours, administrative burdens, lack of autonomy, and productivity pressures. Like so many things, COVID-19 only intensified these existing problems. However, if burnout is the problem, is retirement really the solution? For some, the answer may be “yes,” but before you make this life-changing decision, you may want to ask yourself the following questions and consider a few physician retirement alternatives.  

If My Work Circumstances Improved, Would I Still Want to Retire?

Many of the headlines about physician retirement aren’t focused on an aging physician workforce, but rather, how the stress of COVID-19 and other forces have increased physician burnout, resulting in an unexpected spike in retirements. Is burnout at the root of your retirement plans? If so, would you reconsider if your circumstances improved? 

Consider Dr. J, an Emergency Medicine physician who spent his career working at a Manhattan hospital. He always felt his intense personality was well-suited to the high-stress job, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought the stress to a level even he found impossible to manage. Nevertheless, he powers through each day, triaging patients. Now, at just 54, he is considering retirement. Even if the worst of the pandemic is over, the way he feels about the job and the whole organization has changed. He has given everything to his work, and now, he simply has nothing left to give. 

It’s understandable that Dr. J would feel this way. However, he may be making a decision based on the extreme circumstances of the past two years. Before he ends his career early, it is worth exploring the question, “If my circumstances improved, would I still want to retire?”

Dr. J may feel he’s been through too much to continue with his current employer. Retirement seems like the most logical option. After all, he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and thanks to smart financial planning, it’s a viable option. On the other hand, perhaps Dr. J simply needs time to recover from the trauma he’s endured in recent years. Instead of retirement, his employer may be willing to offer a sabbatical to give him time to rest and reflect on the positive aspects of practicing medicine. Management may also be open to making changes that would improve physician job satisfaction in the department and improve physician retention. 

If your current circumstances are unlikely to improve, it may be time to look for a new physician job–perhaps in a rural location. According to a Rural Physician Recruitment study from Jackson Physician Search and Locum Tenens, “improved work-life balance” is the most common reason rural physicians say they decided to practice rural medicine. Rural physicians are also more likely to say their organization is “patient-focused.” The autonomy, flexibility, and slower pace of life reported by many rural physicians could be exactly what you need to renew your love for practicing medicine.

Alternative #1: Change Your Circumstances / New Physician Job

Approach your manager to discuss your feelings of burnout and propose options for improving current circumstances. If they are unable or unwilling to make changes, you may want to connect with a physician recruiter to learn about other physician jobs that might rekindle your desire to practice. 

Would My Employer Support a Partial Retirement or Other Alternatives to Full Retirement?

According to a 2019 JPS retirement study, only 17% of physicians surveyed said they planned to take a full retirement, and nearly a third said they intended to continue working part-time. In the same study, administrators estimated 40% of their retiring physicians wanted to take full retirement. This indicates a disconnect between what physicians want and what their employers expect. However, in light of the physician shortage, most employers would be happy to take whatever level of work they can get from their physicians. This may be especially true in rural areas.    

Consider Dr. G, a Family Medicine physician who has spent the last 20 years working in a rural hospital treating patients of all ages and ailments. He moved his family to the small community when his kids were young, but now, they’ve grown up and started their careers in bigger cities. As he nears retirement age, he and his wife discuss their plans to travel more and perhaps move to be nearer the kids. He knows it’s time to stop working so much, but is he ready to stop working altogether?

For Dr. G, a partial retirement seems like the ideal option, one that his employer may indeed be willing to entertain. Whether it means simply cutting his hours, job sharing, or adopting telemedicine, Dr. G should initiate a discussion with his employer to discuss how those options might work for them. 

Alternative #2: Part-time Physician Job

Don’t be afraid to approach your employer about your desire to work less. They will likely be happy to hear you want to keep working in some capacity. Start the conversation early and keep an open mind as you discuss your options. If your current employer can’t provide what you need, enlist a national physician recruitment firm to help in your part-time physician job search. 

What Will I Do With My Time Post-Retirement?

Physicians spend countless hours training to practice medicine, and once certified, they often devote 50-60+ hours per week to the job. If anyone has earned the right to put their feet up and relax in retirement, it’s physicians. And yet, this hard-working, high-achieving group often has a difficult time coming to a full stop after devoting so much time and energy to their work for so long. 

Consider Dr. L, as Chief of Surgery at a busy suburban hospital, she can’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t working towards a goal–first medical school, then residency and fellowship, her first job, and then slowly climbing the ladder to her current position. She had achieved success at every step of her plan, and the next step, thanks to savvy financial planning, was retirement at 60. By retiring relatively early, Dr. L intends to really enjoy her retirement, but will she succeed with this plan too?

Though Dr. L may not admit it–she may not even be aware of it–it’s likely she holds some unconscious fears about what exactly “enjoying retirement” will look like for her. Before making the decision, she should think through exactly what she will do with her time post-retirement. Perhaps she has a plan for a “second act,” a business venture, teaching opportunity, or non-profit work. However, she might also consider keeping her license active so she can pursue locum tenens assignments or even medical mission work–abroad or in one of the many healthcare deserts across the US. 

Alternative #3: Locum Tenens 

Make sure you know what you need to do to keep your license active in the first years of full retirement. If or when the initial excitement of retirement wanes, you may want to explore locum tenens jobs through our sister company LocumTenens.com

Retirement is a big decision and it’s never too early to start planning. Whether you’ve been dreaming about your retirement for years or you are just starting to think through the idea, a Jackson Physician Search Recruitment Consultant can help you understand your options as you transition to retirement. Contact us today.

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