Seven years ago, Kristin Nelson, DO, came to a stark realization about her job as an attending physician at a county hospital.
“I loved taking care of patients, but I didn’t like everything else that was involved with my position as a clinician,” she says.
Dr. Nelson’s role left her juggling multiple responsibilities. “I operated, I had a clinic, I helped teach residents and students,” she says.
But over time, Dr. Nelson felt she was on call too much and had too little autonomy. So, a few years ago, the Phoenix-based ENT took the plunge and moved into nonclinical work.
“I was not nervous,” she says. “I had a career before medicine, so I knew that there were jobs out there that offered a better quality of life.”
Dr. Nelson eventually found a job as a physician adviser. Today, she telecommutes as a senior medical director for Optum, a health care company. The work-life balance is much better with her new job, she says.
“I don’t have a pager,” she says. “Nobody wakes me up in the middle of the night except for my children.”
A wider trend
Dr. Nelson’s story reflects a wider trend among physicians. About 46% of doctors expect to change career paths at some point, according to a joint survey of 700,000 doctors by Merritt Hawkins and the Physicians Foundation from last year.
Among the doctors surveyed, 12% plan to look for a nonclinical position.
There are two major Facebook groups for doctors seeking nonclinical careers—Physician Nonclinical Career Hunters and PMG Physicians and Non-Clinical Careers—and they have roughly 12,200 and 2,500 members respectively.
Making a difference in a new way
Pamela Goldman, DO, also made the switch to nonclinical work.
The Philadelphia-based internist says losing two hours each day to a commute – coupled with a variable schedule that rarely allowed her to leave work at the planned time – caused her to rethink her commitment to clinical work.
“It was not compatible with the needs of my family,” she says.
After the birth of her third child, Dr. Goldman left clinical work and took a position with a consulting firm as a physician adviser for 18 months.
Dr. Goldman saw the switch to nonclinical work as an opportunity to advance her career.
“Changing to work in another area of medicine, away from clinical work, provided me the opportunity to expand my skill base,” she says.
The move into nonclinical work sharpened her leadership skills and also gave her a valuable insight, she says.
“You can make a difference in health care without touching a patient,” says Dr. Goldman, who now serves as president of the Pennsylvania Osteopathic Medical Association and a medical director for a national health care company—another nonclinical role.
A larger footprint after 25 years
After more than 25 years of practicing emergency medicine, Kim Perry, DO, found she “did not have the same level of excitement going into a shift.”
Dr. Perry says that while shift work was demanding, it was the opportunity to tackle new leadership roles that really pushed her toward nonclinical work.
“I guess you could say I was ‘burned out,’ but I saw it as an opportunity to impact many more patients and help other providers in a nonclinical role,” she says.
Eventually, Dr. Perry took a job with UnitedHealth Group as a nonclinical chief medical officer for multiple states.
Today, the St. Louis-based Dr. Perry still works in a nonclinical role—as senior vice president and chief medical officer for Kindred Healthcare.
“I feel great about my decision to leave clinical medicine,” she says. “I am still helping patients get well. My footprint is much larger.”
Tips for doctors switching to nonclinical work
Moving from clinical to nonclinical work brings obstacles and new challenges.
“The very first problem was that I made a lot less money,” Dr. Nelson says. “That was a huge step that I had to accept.”
The sobering reality of a smaller paycheck quickly hit home for Dr. Nelson, who still had student loans.
However, she says that over time, the move to nonclinical work—and the willingness to learn new roles, and to work hard toward advancement—literally paid off.
“Now I make more money than I made as an operating surgeon,” she says. She also feels the shift to nonclinical work has made her happier on a day-to-day basis.
“I was so unhappy practicing that I thought that it was going to be better—and it has been,” she says. “Even on my worst day, it’s still better than what I was dealing with practicing.”
Dr. Goldman says a switch to nonclinical work can raise other challenges. “The activity level is different,” she says. “Typically, it is a desk job, on a computer for the duration of the work day.”
But making simple changes—such as wearing a pedometer to ensure you get enough physical activity each day—can help you make a more effective transition, she says.
“If you are content with your clinical situation, don’t make a major change,” she says. “If your work life does not match your needs or wants, make a change.”
Dr. Perry agrees that physicians who feel unhappy in clinical work should not be afraid to try another route.
“My advice to others is follow your passions,” she says. “If you are not happy doing what you are currently doing, then move on.”