I Want to Retire, But Just Can’t Say Goodbye

What your doctor is reading on Medscape.com:

MAY 05, 2020 — Helen Rhodes, MD, an Ob/Gyn in private practice, thought ahead to what she’d do when she reached retirement age. She began getting ready at age 50, building a new practice and a brand new patient panel from scratch. To do so, she left her position at MD Anderson in Houston to move to coastal Texas, in part to get away from the daily grind.

“My income went from very nice to nothing,” said Rhodes. “Literally nothing. So I slowly built the practice into more than part-time, but not a full-time grind like I was doing before. It was very important to me to create that environment for myself.”

Rhodes, now 57, initially supplemented her income with locum tenens jobs in rural and underserved areas. She still does these weekend gigs, but not for the extra income. She discovered she loves working with a completely different patient population.

“In terms of retirement, rather than stop working completely at age 60, I can see myself working until I’m 70 but not working in a frenzy, rather at a more relaxed, enjoyable pace,” she said.

Rhodes is one of many mid- to late-career physicians looking to scale back or semi-retire. Given the COVID-19 crisis, some have lost their choice in the matter, as they’ve had to close their offices or are avoiding going into medical facilities because they are at higher risk.

Rhodes says the pandemic has definitely affected her long-term career and retirement goals. While Texas is gradually reopening businesses throughout the state, “it will take months before well-thought-out and data-driven guidelines allow physicians to safely be busy again. Truthfully, I’m not sure my practice will ever return to what is was before COVID,” she says.

She was fortunate to remain busy as an ultra part-time medical director for a plasmapheresis company and plans to continue in that role; she will also keep caring for her rural patients once a month.

As for her practice, the crisis highlighted a need to decrease overhead — more telemedicine in the long-term, and smaller office space with fewer exam rooms to cut down on costs. She’s also reconsidering whether to transition to a cash-only model or stay on insurance plans. “One result of the pandemic has been a careful refocusing of how I want to spend my professional life,” says Rhodes.


Still, many doctors who are nearing traditional retirement age don’t want to stop practicing completely, according to a survey by the staffing firm CompHealth. The survey of more than 400 physicians found that many don’t want to retire until about age 68, some 5 years later than the average US retirement age. Most say they want to keep working because they enjoy practicing medicine, like the social aspects of work, and want to maintain their existing lifestyle.

Full retirement scares many physicians. Besides losing their income, many feel a loss of identity. They also often miss the gratitude and interaction with patients. Many say they miss mental stimulation and challenges, and of suddenly feeling older.

After retiring from clinical practice and teaching at 70, Deane Waldman, MD, MBA, professor emeritus of pediatrics, pathology, and decision science at the University of New Mexico, realized he wanted to work. He took a job as director of the Center for Health Care Policy at Texas Public Policy Foundation. He now directs a national campaign to fix healthcare.

“We are people who have spent a lifetime having a damned good reason to get out of bed in the morning; people are sick and we can help them,” he said. “To suddenly have no purpose to arise leads to early senility and demise.”

Working during retirement is also better for your brain.

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