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What Keeps Late-Career Physicians Engaged

Analysis  |  By Debra Shute  
   August 17, 2017

Physicians older than 50 are motivated by a different set of factors than younger doctors, research suggests.

Physicians may not be as eager to retire as the industry has been led to believe, according to a recent survey of more than 400 physicians age 50 and older.

Overall, physician respondents said they intend to retire at age 68, compared to the average U.S. retirement age of 65.

The research was conducted by Hanover Research on behalf of locum tenens staffing firm CompHealth.

About half (51%) of respondents signaled interest in working part-time or only occasionally after retirement.

"That's good news," says Lisa Grabl, president of CompHealth. "With the physician shortage, we need all of the physicians who are able and willing to work we can get. We want to understand what will keep them engaged in the workforce."

The average respondent to the CompHealth survey respondents is 60 years old, works about of 45 hours per week, and has practiced medicine for an average of 28 years.

While a 2016 survey from the Physicians Foundation, indicated that close to half of the overall physician population plans to retire sooner rather than later, the motivations of later-career physicians are specific:

They're almost ready for retirement.

Out of the survey sample, 83% of physicians said they'd taken steps to prepare for retirement and 70% had taken advantage of employer retirement services such as a 401K or pension.

A 2015 study from Fidelity Investments, however, showed that physicians on average save just 9% of their incomes for retirement, short of the 15% recommended by finance professionals.

They value work-life balance.

If they got to do their careers over, 44% would have maintained a better work-life balance. "It came through loud and clear that physicians would have changed their careers if they understood what it was going to mean for their work-life balance," Grabl says.

"We work with many physicians who work as locum tenens specifically so that they can be more in control of their schedule and the amount of time they're committing."

To keep permanent physicians of any age engaged, she encourages conversations about work hour expectations and time off upfront.

They want to interact.

The loss of the social dynamic of the work environment was the leading retirement concern for respondents, followed by loss of purpose, boredom, loneliness, or depression.

Additionally, "enjoyment of the social aspects of working" was among the top three reasons given for wanting to practice medicine after age 65.

They're confident.

Most (91%) of respondents said they can still provide useful services to their patients and the community and 89% said they can still be competitive in the healthcare field.

The CompHealth survey did not ask physicians' opinions about age-based competency testing, for which the American Medical Association called for guidelines in 2015. The AMA currently has a task force working on possible solutions.

They like working.

"Not having to work anymore" neared the bottom of the list of favorable aspects of retirement, at 32%, while 76% said they were most looking forward to traveling more.

Moreover, "enjoyment of the practice of medicine" was the top reason given for practicing beyond age 65.

"When physicians are moving into that retirement phase, overwhelmingly what we hear is that they're not working in that late career phase for compensation. They're doing it because they enjoy practicing medicine and helping people," Grabl says.

Debra Shute is the Senior Physicians Editor for HealthLeaders Media.

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