“What?!? Why?!?” These are the two questions I receive (often simultaneously) when I tell someone that I’m no longer practicing medicine. Many other questions and comments usually follow, such as, “But you spent all that time in school and residency…” Ah, yes. All that time. And training. And debt. Why did I even go to medical school? Good question.
I went to medical school simply because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t do it for the money, and there are no physicians in my family in whose footsteps I needed to follow. I had a great interest in the health sciences, but I could count on one hand the options that I thought were available to me in that field. I had a great GPA and stupidly, I did not question the rather frequent suggestion I received: “You’re smart enough, so you should become a doctor.” Sure, sounds good. I just wish I realized then that just because one can do something, it doesn’t mean one should. Regardless, I was accepted into medical school, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I may have made a mistake. But while I was sitting in a pharmacology lecture in second year, I was thinking, well I can’t quit now – I’ll have too much debt! Plus, what else am I going to do? I have a degree in Biology. No way am I working in a lab for the rest of my life. How little I knew about the possibilities that were open to me.
I did fairly well in med school, then completed residency and fellowship. During residency, I considered other careers a couple of times, but nothing panned out. I pumped myself up for fellowship and actually really enjoyed it. One of my projects that year was to write a book chapter, and I was so surprised at how much I loved it. I was also praised for my hard work and writing abilities. I began to think, I could do this… somehow I need to find a way to write. Then I went on to my first “real” job, which was terribly disappointing because it was nothing like my fellowship. Plus, the business side of practice was new to me, and I had no assistance with any of it (the system was supposed to hire someone but never did). Regardless, I dove into the job headfirst, thinking I could make it better if I tried. I gave lectures, participated in interviews, and met with referring providers. I also started a blog, which was intended to be both informational and entertaining. Once again, I found myself more interested in writing than practicing medicine. And once again, I got great feedback. Although I loved my field, attending conferences, and keeping up with my journals, I simply did not enjoy practicing medicine (for too many other reasons to explain here). I also had a lot of anxiety; this wasn’t something new, but it was getting worse instead of better. Even though I was well trained and competent, I always had thoughts in the back of my head like, “What if I’m missing something?” or “What if there’s a complication after this procedure?” To make things worse, in the first month of practice, a mother casually told me that she would have taken legal action against me if anything had gone wrong in the care of her adolescent child (it didn’t).
After about six months of practice, I started thinking about a change. The anxiety-related GI symptoms, mood swings, difficulty sleeping, and Sunday night dread were definitely wearing on me. It was also wearing on my fiancé (now my husband) and our relationship. Fortunately for me, he was very supportive because he could see how miserable I was. My anxiety and physical manifestations weren’t getting better with time and experience, as I told myself they might. I started exploring my options while saving more of my paycheck, knowing that I would end up leaving this practice, if not clinical medicine entirely. My regular chats with Heather were very helpful, and it made me feel so much better to realize that I was not the only one in this situation. Before then, I’d never known any MDs in nonclinical positions, so I thought there might be something wrong with me. I hate to say it, but I really needed some sort of validation that I wasn’t alone in my dilemma. Once I started reading books (Do You Feel Like You Wasted All That Training by Michael McLaughlin, MD and Non-Clinical Careers For Physicians by Babitsky and Mangraviti), finding websites (www.nonclinicaljobs.com) and group emails (The Drop Out Club), and speaking with MDs in non-clinical positions, I became more confident about my desire to stop practicing. It was then clear to me that I could still use my degree and my training, so I wasn’t “giving up altogether.”
I enrolled in a 6-week online medical writing course for professionals with advanced degrees (including MDs) and submitted my notice of resignation. After I completed the course, I started my own freelance medical writing company. So far, my work has mostly included promotional materials for a large university medical center, conference coverage, medical news writing, feature stories, and CME work. What I love most about freelance medical writing is that I cover fields outside of my own specialty, so I’m always learning something new. Plus, I can set my own schedule, and this work is much less stressful.
Should I have given it more time? Should I have joined another group? Should I have practiced elsewhere with a different patient population? Would I have been happier in another field? The answer to all of these questions is maybe. But I really believe that I would have come to the same conclusion eventually. There were red flags all along, and I ignored them. I don’t regret the course that I’ve taken, because I wouldn’t be where I am now without it. But I am still happy with my decision to pursue non-clinical options.
I left clinical medicine after one year of practice, and I haven’t missed it one bit. So I guess you could say I’m pretty confident that I made the right decision. I don’t always get a great amount of support from friends and family, and at first, that bothered me. But now, I don’t care. I realize that I did what’s right for me, and that’s all that really matters.