Retrain to Keep Physician Burnout from Ending Your Career

By Dr. Jone Flanders, DO, FACP, FACC, Senior Medical Advisor, Physicians Retraining & Reentry

Insurmountable patient exam loads. Concerns about transmissible diseases. The administrative burden of prior authorization and, of course, paperwork.

There are many reasons three in every five physicians report feeling burnout, according to a recent survey by researchers at the American Medical Association, the Mayo Clinic, Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of Colorado School of Medicine. The researchers also found that burnout experiences in physicians are increasing, and that trend is seen across all specialties.

Physician burnout causes many to leave the profession. This is worsening the physician shortage, as the Association of American Medical Colleges noted in its latest projections on physician supply. “Growing concerns about physician burnout, documented in the literature and exacerbated by COVID-19, suggest physicians will be more likely to accelerate than delay retirement,” according to the study’s key findings, which includes a projected shortage of up to 48,000 primary care physicians by 2034.

Burnout and the physician shortage were issues of concern well before COVID-19, but the pandemic certainly didn’t help either problem. Because so many physicians leave the medical practice to escape burnout, the two are intrinsically linked.

But what if, instead of cutting medical careers short, physicians pivot to a practice that allows them to keep caring for patients in need, but with less stress?

It’s not too good to be true.

We all remember our medical school interviews where we were asked: “Why do you want to be a doctor?” What the interviewers meant was: “Why would you commit to 16 years of stressful, hard and competitive education only to take a demanding job that keeps you on call around the clock for people who don’t appreciate you?”

I’ll bet we all had the same answer: “Because I want to help people.”

Physician burnout, though, doesn’t mean you must — or should — stop helping people. You can get back to those “reason I went into medicine” roots. 

What if, instead, you got back to your original professional goal by pivoting your career to one that allows more control with less stress?

Licensed physicians from around the country have taken that leap back to their roots by retraining as primary care physicians. Surgeons, gynecologists, cardiologists… all sorts of specialists are finding happiness practicing in primary care in a variety of clinical settings, from rural, low-income communities to government and military facilities to telemedicine.

Sometimes the change in venue is just what is needed to reinvigorate and connect with the satisfaction of “making it better.” Consider that even a temporary job (such as what locum tenens offers) allows for a chance to go to an area of the country you’d always wanted to visit or return to a location you’d visited on vacation to live and work for a while. Remember the Audition Rotation in medical school, where the job saw you while you saw the job? Those experiences still exist for the physician willing to take that first step!

Telehealth affords the refresh of practice without physical relocation. Since the lack of specialty care is prevalent in remote communities, the combination of a specialty physician’s base training and experience combined with refresher in primary care affords the recipient patients care that they otherwise may not have access to. 

Some specialists leave practice and return after taking a primary care physician retraining course. Some retrain as a primary care physician as a steppingstone to retirement, allowing them to continue practicing while tapering down responsibilities and hours — as there are many community clinics looking to fill part-time positions. Many take a primary care refresher course as a way out of burnout and a way back to doing what they set out to do: helping people.

Besides providing much-needed care to patients in need, you’d personally experience the health benefits that come from helping people. Research shows that helping others activates the “reward” areas of our brains, which feels good. Helping people leads to happiness, health and longevity.

Don’t let the lights flicker, dim or burnout on your medical career. Take back control of your schedule, and your life. Find happiness and return to your dream. Refresh, retrain, re-enter.

Dr. Jone Flanders serves as the senior medical advisor for the Physician Retraining & Reentry program. She provides consulting on curriculum, outreach and, importantly, ways that PRR participants can leverage their primary care training. A cardiologist, Dr. Flanders was the chief of Inpatient Medicine Services at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. She serves as treasurer and fellow to the Federation of State Medical Boards and is the immediate past chair of the Hawaii Medical Board.

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