Calling it Quits: Planning to Retire from Your Medical Career
Physicians can put in 12+-hour days, then be on-call during the weekend. Vacations may be punctuated by interruptions to check on patients via the Internet or take phone calls from office staff. So doctors may secretly— or not so secretly— long for the day they can call it quits and retire, lounging on the beach, retreating to a mountain cabin, or playing hide-and-seek with the grandchildren. But there are many rabbit holes of retirement planning, which can leave you feeling like you’re in a wonderland filled with more questions than answers as well as confusion and uncertainty for your future.
Rabbit Hole #1: Boredom
Switching gears from an intense medical practice to a low-key retirement is dramatic, and therefore necessitates a well thought out, logical plan. “You want to retire from something, to something,” advisesDr. Wiley Koon,an 84-year-old retired family practitioner from Winter Haven Hospital and a Polk County Medical Association member. “You don’t want to retire and have nothing to do but sit on your thumbs.”
Dr. Glen Barden,a 74-year-old orthopedic and hand surgeon who retired at age 70 from Lakeland’s Watson Clinic and a Polk County Medical Association member, agrees. “Make sure you have something, something that you have to do that day,” Dr. Barden suggests. “Something that’s on the schedule.”
Because he felt he still had something to contribute, Dr. Barden accepted a part-time position on the University of South Florida faculty when he left Watson Clinic. He held that position for three years while volunteering at Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine, where he still helps uninsured workers. “I’m glad that I did have the transition. If I had just closed the door and walked out, I would have not known what to do,” he says, explaining he would have felt “unfulfilled.”
His part-time job allowed him “to gradually move into this stage of life in a positive manner,” explains Dr. Barden, who recommends taking advantage of retirement planning sessions offered by medical associations. Now that he is volunteering rather than working, he and his wife Emmala enjoy the freedom to visit children and grandchildren and play a greater role in their lives. Transitioning from an intense work environment to slower pace, takes time. So it’s best to start early.
Rabbit Hole #2: Lack of Financial Planning
Brad Dantzler, senior vice president of investments in Winter Haven for the St. Petersburg-based Raymond James investment company,suggests starting as early as possible with financial preparations. “The whole key to a successful retirement . . . is to start early,” he advises, explaining that it gives people time to create larger pools of assets through the power of compounded interest.
He recommends consulting a certified public accountant, attorney and financial advisor in developing a retirement plan.As with anyone else, doctors will want to consider how much they want to leave to heirs, when to take income from their investments, how to transfer assets effectively, and what kind of insurance coverage they’ll need.
He suggests doctors get “second opinions” on their retirement plans because it provides another perspective. “Get some local help from somebody that’s been doing it a long time,” he says. “I know doctors’ incomes have shrunk just like everybody else’s . . . You don’t want to have to go back to work in two years.” Those concerned about protecting their assets from malpractice claims may want to consider creditor-proof investments, he adds.
After the plan is done, you need to stick to it. “Sometimes people get into trouble when they don’t stick to the plan,” he cautions.
Rabbit Hole #3: Waiting Too Long
Longer life spans and economic uncertainties may make retirement less attractive, especially to physicians in their sixties and seventies. When they have the freedom to choose whether to retire, they need to be objective about their capabilities. “You want to finish strong,” advises Dr. Barden, who recommends seeking counsel from colleagues who will be honest if your capabilities are slipping. “It’s hard to tell someone more senior it’s time you need to stop.”
That determination shouldn’t be made by age, suggests Dr. Barden, who attended Emory University’s School of Medicine. “We all know individuals that are sharp as they can be as far as their mental function [into their late 70s and early 80s],” he adds. Dr. Koon suggests asking “How much longer will I be able to function adequately as a service to the profession as well as to myself? Am I sharp enough to continue?”
Retirement can be seamless for doctors at clinics and larger practices where other physicians can take over patients. The transition also is smoother when doctors drop their hours, easing from 60-hour work weeks to 40-hour weeks or less. Through this weaning process, patients can visit their trusted physician, while recognizing his or her need to slow down. A surgeon may cut back to office patients only; others may work half days or only some days. Over time, the patients gain confidence in the backup physician, who can assume primary care for the patient when the original doctor retires.
Sole practitioners may bring in nurse practitioners, enabling them to reduce their hours. Others may choose to take in a younger partner who eventually assumes full ownership of the practice. Still others may sell the practice, leaving their patients to the new doctor.
Rabbit Hole #4: Planning for a Personal Life
When they do retire, some physicians take college courses or travel, or work as a locum tenens taking temporary assignments in their field. “One of the first things we did— we went to a medical meeting in Paris, France,” Dr. Koon recalls. “Later on, we went on a trip to the Holy Land.”
Being a locum tenens is “a great way to cut back and slow down,” he says. “Then you know a little bit better whether you’re going to be able to handle retirement,” he adds.
Staying with the projected budget is wise. Sixteen years into retirement,Dr. Koon says “we probably overspent.” “You just don’t live high on the hog as you might want to,” he says. “With IRAs [Individual Retirement Accounts] you have to pay the income tax you didn’t have to pay when creating them.”
It’s also a good idea to have healthcare options beside Medicare. “You better have that insurance to take care of the fees. The drug stores certainly want their money,” says Dr. Koon, who was taught in medical school that doctors don’t charge doctors. “You better have an insurance plan by all means, just like anybody else.”
The world has changed since Dr. Koon was at the University of Miami medical school from 1956-60. “They used to call us R.D.,” which meant “a real doctor,” he recalls. Born and reared in Lakeland, he practiced at Winter Haven Hospitalfor 35 years. At 68, he decided he had enough of government regulations, insurance company problems, and bickering about finances. He also was facing the prospect of knee surgery.
“I read medicine every day of my life ever since I went to medical school. I finally decided it was time to read something else. I wanted to relax,” explains Dr. Koon,who met his wife Sara while she was a nurse at Winter Haven Hospital. “You just have to plan ahead and be doggone sure you’re not going to run out of money.”
That involves planning for inflation, which will eat your buying power. “Project what your income is going to be versus how much you have been spending and will continue to spend,” he says.
After all is said and done, Dr. Koon looks back and feels honored that patients entrusted him with their health. “I really feel so thankful,” he observes, “that I was able to be a doctor.”
story by CHERYL ROGERS