America, be afraid. Be very afraid. The findings in a new survey of American physicians commissioned by the Physicians Foundation and conducted by Merritt Hawkins suggest that given the opportunity to retire, 6 out of 10 doctors would leave the profession immediately. The survey also points out that it is not just the old and tired who are ready to leave practice. Nearly half of docs under the age of 40 say they would also leave the profession if given the opportunity.
Mind you, I’m not too surprised by this. The survey of nearly 13,575 physicians points to the usual suspects as the reasons for doctor disdain. Fear of malpractice and the “damned if you do, damned it you don’t” dilemma of having to practice defensive medicine are stated as leading contributors to physician angst. Frankly, I was a bit surprised that older physicians in particular didn’t cite the government’s somewhat forceful push toward making them use electronic medical records as yet another cause of doctor consternation.
Of course, I really don’t expect that sixty percent of all physicians will walk out the door anytime soon. If they did, it would only hasten another well publicized prediction being bantered about on the web these days; that super computers, the Internet, artificial intelligence, and even smartphones will one day replace the need for most physicians altogether. Talk about feeling insecure! How would you feel if after 8 or more years of post graduate education, accumulating massive debt along the way, you were now being told that your profession was becoming obsolete?
Having practiced primary care medicine for 20 years, I can definitely sympathize with my colleagues. While no one feels sorry for physicians when it comes to their earning power, my fellow primary care docs are hardly overpaid for what they do. Many jobs in other industries pay more money for a lot fewer hours, much less training, and certainly less risk. I learned that long ago when almost anything else I did with my time proved more remunerative than seeing patients in my office. Still, I enjoyed the work and nothing then or since has provided the satisfaction I received from caring for patients.
Yes, there are many things docs could do that will earn them an equal or greater income. But I would tell them, “before you walk away from your practice, keep in mind that the grass isn’t any greener.” Every industry has its challenges and its politics. There’s no free lunch anywhere you go. Furthermore, I do believe that we are entering a time when new technology will vastly improve the quality, safety, and pleasure of practicing medicine. I see it firsthand every day among docs who’ve learned to embrace new technologies and new ways of practicing medicine using this technology. Whether it is using contemporary solutions to improve clinical workflow, communicate and collaborate with colleagues and patients, or connect docs to the information they need to practice better medicine; technology is a friend, not the enemy. It can even protect physicians from those nasty malpractice attorneys by helping them avoid mistakes and backing up their clinical acumen with factual, evidence-based practices.
I believe that we are entering what may be the golden age of medicine. Armed with technologies and tools that make us smarter and more productive, we will be much better equipped to deliver the right treatments to the right patients at the right time, place and at the right cost. Isn’t that what attracted physicians to the medical profession in the first place? And I use the term “profession” with considerable intent. Doctors are consummate professionals. They are also quite human. The next time you see one, be sure to say “thank you for what you do”.
Bill Crounse, MD Senior Director, Worldwide Health Microsoft