Dr. Ted Dodenhoff was a plastic surgeon for three decades. But when practicing surgery felt too demanding and began wearing him down, he knew the time had come to retire. He did all the things retired people do: Went on vacation, spent time with his wife and family and worked on his Phoenix-area home.
But Dr. Dodenhoff missed seeing patients. He missed helping people and making a difference.
Dr. Dodenhoff decided to retrain and reenter medicine as a primary care physician because he saw the need – especially in underserved communities. After enrolling in and completing the Physician Retraining & Reentry program, Dr. Dodenhoff volunteered as a primary care physician at a Mission of Mercy Mobile Unit. The Mobile Unit is a motorhome that travels to communities near the Arizona-Mexico border. There, he and other volunteer physicians and nurses treat low-income people who would otherwise not have access to medical care. From hypertension and obesity to circulatory problems and women’s health, the mobile clinic provides treatment and preventive care to patients in need.
“Sometimes, it almost brings tears to my eyes to see my patients so grateful for the treatment we provide,” Dr. Dodenhoff, 86, recently said.
That feeling – the one people get when they make a real impact in other people’s lives – is at the center of recent research that suggests a myriad of psychological and health benefits to having purpose in life. A Forbes article titled The Science of Giving Back: How Having a Purpose is Good for Body and Brain cites several studies that extol the benefits of having a purpose, including better sleep, memory and cognitive functioning.
Someone’s “purpose” is “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self,” according to researcher William Damon, who wrote “A Path to Purpose.” This intention has many benefits beyond the act itself, and having purpose helps people focus on and prioritize the things that matter most to them, Damon found. People who have purpose, Damon says, also:
- Have increased optimism, resiliency and hope
- Experience joy, happiness and satisfaction more often
- Enjoy better physical health
- Face a lower risk of early death
- Feel more engagement and belonging at work
- Report increased career satisfaction
- Are more likely to be a leader in the workplace
- Achieve higher income
“Dr. Dodenhoff and the other physicians I work with who have retrained and reentered practice as primary care physicians say they appreciate finding their purpose and relate experiencing many benefits,” said PRR CEO Thomas De Rosa.
Unfortunately, the U.S. is experiencing a primary care physician shortage that is impacting our country’s most vulnerable and at-risk communities. Thomas would argue, though, that this situation has created many opportunities for physicians looking for their own purpose.
In a recent report, the Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that the U.S. could see a shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034. Primary care, the frontline in the battle for health care, is bracing for a shortage of up to 48,000 physicians, the AAMC says.
Physicians looking to change specialties, return to practice after time away or transition toward retirement can retrain as primary care physicians and continue practicing. The opportunities for purposeful work are boundless and are not restricted to U.S. borders. With so many people in dire need of healthcare, primary care physicians can provide care to patients in their own communities or in those lacking even the most rudimentary medical interventions.
Dr. Wonsick Choe, who practiced nuclear medicine in South Korea, retrained as a primary care physician because he wanted to return to the U.S. and provide more direct-to-patient care. The 70-year-old now works for a Federally Qualified Health Center in a low-income Northern California community. “I think it was a good decision to switch to primary care because I see how much it’s needed,” Dr. Choe says, adding that he feels “happy” and “very satisfied” in his practice.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the physician shortage, according to the AAMC, which encourages physicians to retrain and reenter medicine. “Given the critical physician shortages, the push to get interested doctors back into medicine needs to be top priority,” Dr. Kimberly Templeton, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Kansas Medical Center and past president of the American Medical Women’s Association, told the AAMC.
There are many reasons physicians stop practicing medicine. But, for those who find meaningful purpose in providing healthcare to those in need, there are options to consider. The U.S. is in dire need of primary care physicians who provide the preventative care and treatments that so many lives depend on. Retraining and reentering the healthcare field as a primary care physician is a chance to find purpose.
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