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Physician Retirement Trends: Easing Into The Next Stage

Jackson Physician Search
March 28, 2023

Due to an aging and burned-out physician workforce, the healthcare industry expects to see a spike in physician retirements in the coming years. According to a report published by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), in 2021, nearly half (46.7%) of practicing physicians were over the age of 55. This means at least two of every five active physicians will reach the traditional retirement age of 65 in the next eight years. This, coupled with what we know about increasing physician burnout, makes it easy to see why the industry expects a spike in physician retirement trends to increase.

Are you among those considering retirement? Physicians of all ages typically have some idea of when they’d like to retire. According to a new report from Jackson Physician Search, the desired retirement age is trending younger. Another physician retirement trend noted in the report is that the traditional process of announcing one’s retirement and setting a date to make it official is no longer the norm. In fact, according to the report, only 12% of physician respondents plan to retire this way. 

So, how do physicians want to retire? The new report, “Preparing for the Wave of Physician Retirements,” reveals what today’s physicians want for their future retirements. If you are thinking about retirement — whether in the next few years or the distant future — you should know the current physician retirement trends and consider how they might influence your future retirement options. 

Physician Retirement Trends: Desire to Retire Earlier

Despite all the talk about the aging physician workforce, according to the study, many Baby Boomer physicians are still working full-time. However, among physicians under age 60, primarily Gen X, most report a desire to retire sooner rather than later. According to a 2021 Rural Physician Recruitment Whitepaper, Gen X physicians are more likely than Baby Boomers to report feeling dissatisfied with their levels of professional and personal fulfillment. So, perhaps it is not surprising that nearly 60% say they plan to retire before they turn 60 years old. Only 19% plan to work beyond the traditional physician retirement age of 65.

Despite the commonly held belief that one’s age drives the decision to retire, burnout is the reason one in four physicians in the study said they would eventually retire. Thus, the desire to retire younger is presumably driven by the fact that burnout, according to a joint MGMA and Jackson Physician Search study, is worsening among physicians year over year.

Takeaway: While it’s often the employment situation causing burnout, as a physician, addressing it early and transparently with your employer is the first step to resolving the issues contributing to burnout or those that eventually will. If you imagine yourself working a long career in patient care, mitigating burnout appears essential according to the report.

Physician Retirement Trends: Cutting Back Gradually

While many physicians express a preference to retire before the traditional retirement age, this may not be possible or even desirable when the time arises. Consider Dr. M, who, at 40, assumed he would retire by the time he was 60. But at 57, he has three kids in college, a beach house he’s still paying for, and he’s on the board (and heavily invested) in his niece’s start-up healthcare tech company. Retirement isn’t in his five-year plan — perhaps it’s not even in the ten-year version. And yet, like most physicians, Dr. M is burned out and isn’t sure how much longer he can sustain his current level of work. He’s not ready to hang it up just yet (nor will his bank account allow it), but surely, there’s a way to lower the intensity and keep working. 

Dr. M isn’t alone in the desire to work less. According to the data on physician retirement trends, physicians as early as 50 are beginning to cut their hours and slow down, and the percentage of physician respondents who report working part-time increases significantly with age.  

In the Jackson Physician Search study, physicians were asked what, if anything, would make them delay full retirement and keep working in some capacity; 58% said part-time work, and 52% said schedule flexibility. When asked how they hoped to transition to retirement, 43% said they hoped to reduce their work hours in the years leading up to retirement. 

Takeaway: The aging population has increasing healthcare needs, and many employers recognize that a part-time physician is better than no physician at all. Employers should be more willing to accommodate, and even encourage, flexibility and part-time schedules in order to prolong the transition to retirement. Even if your employer doesn’t currently have part-time physicians, it pays to ask what options might exist for you. 

Physician Retirement: Finding Work Elsewhere

In an article for HealtheCareers, Michael Dill, AAMC senior data analyst and director of Workforce Studies, explains that physicians aging out of the workforce aren’t retiring as much as they used to, but rather, they are moving to different jobs within the industry. He says the Great Resignation may be more of what economist Paul Krugman calls a great “migration.” 

This supports the findings of the Jackson Physician Search study, in which nearly a third (30%) of physician respondents said they plan to retire from their current job and work locum tenens or full- or part-time with other organizations. 

For Dr. M, this might mean he takes a job consulting for his niece’s start-up. Or it could be that he works part-time at the rural clinic near the mountain house he and his wife are building. Perhaps he pursues a teaching position at a local college, or he develops a relationship with a locum tenens staffing firm and works sporadically when he has availability. 

Takeaway: Even after physicians fully retire, they still have a variety of professional options available to them. Physicians who want to continue to contribute are sure to find organizations happy to accept whatever parts of themselves they still want to give. This is the time in your career when you can follow a passion, step into a mentoring role, or work locums to allow for more travel or time with family.   

Evolving Physician Retirement Trends

Physician retirement has evolved. While the traditional process of choosing a date, having a party, and hanging up the white coat is still appealing for some, many physicians are exploring their options, including part-time work, reduced hours, locum tenens work, or career shifts to teaching or consulting. Perhaps these options would have always been appealing to physicians, but only now, when employers are facing a shortage and desperate to keep physicians working in some capacity, are these options readily available. 

Are you interested in exploring the career options available to you? Whether you are nearing the end of your physician career or just beginning, the team at Jackson Physician Search has the experience and expertise to help you navigate the next chapter. Reach out today to find out how we can help. 

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