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.
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