Many doctors are talking about retiring early from medicine. In fact, about one third of doctors in the U.S. want to either quit medicine or make a major change in their practice. But many doctors don’t want to retire early; they want to find ways to enjoy practicing into their 70s. Both of my senior partners loved the work and waited to retire. But as we age, we don’t have the stamina we had in our 30s, so modifications are in order to continue practicing.
Following is the story of one such doctor who loved his orthopedic practice until he retired at 78, not because he wanted to, but because his job ended when the clinic he worked for went out of business. He made modifications over the years so he could accommodate an aging body. He prefers to remain anonymous.
I grew up with eight siblings in a small town in South America where my father spent 30 years as a general practitioner. I always wanted to follow in his footsteps. In 1968, I completed my medical education and began my practice at age 25. Two years later, when the civil unrest in my country made things unsafe for me, I fled to the United States, the land of the free.
Before I was allowed to practice, I was required to do a US residency, so I completed an orthopedic residency and started my practice in New Mexico.
By the time my residency was finished, the governmental leaders that caused all the unrest back home were overthrown, and I felt compelled to return to my homeland to practice as my father had. I worked in the US for three years in order to save enough money to go back home and start up a new practice.
Unfortunately, when I returned to my homeland things had changed. To them, I was a foreign medical graduate because I trained and practiced in the US. I no longer had the local contacts I needed and could not get a good referral pattern established. I went broke and gave up the notion of practicing in my homeland and headed back to the United States where things had gone well for me.
I returned to the US in 1982, at the age of 39, broke and with a wife and three kids in tow. Some of my siblings had moved to California, so I decided to find an orthopedic job near my siblings.
I started out at a trauma center and within a few years I was the chief of orthopedics. Life was good and I loved my very busy practice. Seven years later, at the age of 46, the trauma coverage was beginning to weigh on me. I was not able to handle the long nights and keep up with the fast pace the day after I took call. I still loved orthopedics but needed to slowdown in order to continue practicing.
I decided to give up trauma, so I left the trauma center job and opened a solo private practice in 1989. The slower pace made my work enjoyable again.
By 2000, at the age of 57, my back trouble began to cause problems. I had an earlier injury that seemed to worsen with age. I decided it was time to make another shift in my practice to accommodate my aging body. I gave up taking call. The reduced work level allowed me to slow down a bit more and continue practicing, even with some back pain. I still loved what I did and had no thoughts of retirement.
In 2004, at the age of 61, the trauma center where I previously worked needed help as they were short staffed. They asked if I would be able to help out and take some trauma call. I agreed to help them on a part time basis while I continued my private practice.
I soon realized why I had given up trauma and call, which were both hard on my older body. I helped them for three years at which time they had hired new partners and also had residents to help. So when I was no longer needed, I stepped away from the trauma center again.
In 2007, at the age of 64, I was back to no trauma and no call in my private practice. What a relief to go back to my lighter schedule.
By 2015, at the age of 72, I was contemplating retirement. I had enough money saved to retire, but I wasn’t sure I could give up being a doctor just yet.
Word got out that I was thinking about retiring. Since I had been helping a nearby VA hospital cover for vacations in their orthopedic department, and they were short staffed at the time, they approached me to see if I would be willing to work for them to help with their backlog of hip, knee, and shoulder replacements patients.
I said yes, closed my private practice and became an employee for the Veterans Administration. This career change removed all the administrative responsibility of running a private practice. I could just go to work, do the part of my job I loved the most, replacing joints, and go home. Yet another step to decrease my workload.
By 2018, at the age of 75, I started noticing that I was making small mistakes while operating. It was nothing anyone else could see, but I knew it was happening. I worried that these small errors could lead to a big mistake in the future and I could harm someone. It became clear to me that I needed to stop operating.
I stopped doing surgery and began to work for an injection pain clinic three days a week.
In 2019 at the age of 76, I cut back to two days a week.
In 2021, at the age of 78, the pain clinic was shut down due to budgeting issues. So I thought that was my cue to hang it up and move into the retired phase of my life.
I was happy to have practiced medicine for fifty-three years. As I aged, I simply made modifications to my practice to accommodate a body that was continually slowing down.
In my retirement years, I don’t intend to sit idle. I am now working on starting a charitable foundation to pay the full tuition for twenty medical students every year who are from California. In exchange for a full ride scholarship, the students would agree to practice in an underserved area in California for the first three years out of training. If you would like to donate to this foundation, and help medical students complete their training debt free, please contact Dr. Fawcett and he will get my foundation in touch with you.
I am also giving lectures at local high schools and creating a summer internship program for high schoolers to see what it is like to be a physician. My goal is to encourage kids to choose a career in medicine.
I have also volunteered to give vaccinations for COVID.
All in all I’m staying busy even in my retirement. At every age, there is a way to be a productive member of society and I intend to keep on contributing until I am no longer able to do so. By making accommodations in your practice, it is easily possible to work well into your 70s and still enjoy what you do.
If you are contemplating retirement, please read The Doctors Guide to Smart Career Alternatives and Retirement before you pull the trigger. You may find great ways to continue to contribute to society, like I did.
24 thoughts on “How to Enjoy Practicing Medicine Into Your 70s”
I Am 73 – finished medical school in 1970. private practice for 7 years then ER medicine. Was able to give up night shifts a few years ago and gradually decreased my hours until last year when I retired. Still miss seeing patients but not all the other administrative and government directives. When started ED medicine was not unusual to see 40-50 patients in a 12 hour shift. Was lucky to see 20 patients per 12 hour shift due EMR. It became impossible to enjoy medicine so I retired.
I enjoyed reading this and congratulate you all on your long and productive careers. I am 68 and have been in the same OBGYN private practice since 1990. I stopped obstetrics 15 years ago, quit taking call and went to a 4 day work week. In the past year I have quit doing major cases and plan to go to a 3 day work week next year. I have been very fortunate to have complete control over my work schedule and very agreeable partners. I have considered it a privilege to care for some of my patients for over 30 years and to have babies I delivered become my GYN patients. I think I will retire around age 70 but know I will miss the practice of medicine.
I am 64 and retired from full time practice in a small, Michigan town 17 months ago. I made myself available to do locum tenens and did an Indian Health Service assignment for 2 months last Spring and am to do 6 weeks at a different Southwestern location this winter. I am trying to do work like this very infrequently until I am 70. The practice of medicine and the electronic record is also very similar, so, it was not too hard making the pivot. Covid has taken some of the personal side out of physician-patient and physician-physician interaction due to universal masking. Also burnout and cynicism often accompanies aging and is a little bit everywhere(including me) and must be controlled and replaced with idealism and optimism.
Great story and great comments. Congratulations and thank you all for your longevity and dedication.
Thirty years after graduating from medical school I still love what I do as an internist-geriatrician but don’t plan to work into my 70’s or 80’s. I believe there is a timeline for most professions. Of course there is no problem with older physicians working as long as we enjoy it and more importantly know our limits and potentials. I think the younger generation has figured out the balance between life and work better than most of us.
We need to keep in mind that practicing medicine is very different nowadays specially for younger physicians. Some of the things I can think of include:
1. Most of them have huge debts by the time they finish their training.
2. They have to deal with a huge complicated and inefficient medical system that seems to care more about documentations than spending time with patients
3. They have little chance of success unless they join private or hospital owned groups who have their own complicated rules and regulations
4. They have to deal with profit seeking insurance companies dictating how they do their job
5. They have to practice defensive medicine because of malpractice laws
6. They don’t have the same autonomy that older physicians enjoyed
Finally, there was a comment about physicians vs NP’s and PA’s . I work with very capable NP’s and given the current physician shortage they are great alternatives. A fact that we need to appreciate and accept. It also shows that many younger individuals choose other professions because of challenges of becoming a doctor and our medical system.
My father, uncle, and three cousins were all physicians. My father told me early on to not expect to get wealthy from practicing medicine in an honorable fashion. I just turned 68 years old. The COIVD 19 year was tough. I thought seriously about retiring, but decided to see what happened after COVID 19 incidence improved. I am glad I did not retire. I love caring for patients. I love being a detective of medical disease. As long as I am physically and mentally capable, I will probably practice at least part time. The rewards of helping others are immense. I have no needed to work in many years, but knowing that I am helping others is so satisfying. I am not particularly picky about the insurance a patient has, because I really just want to cover expenses. I am paid in knowing that I have helped the sick, and what more could one person want from a career.
Great article. I just retired at age 76 from Family Practice and thoroughly enjoyed every day of my practice. For 25 years, I owned my own practice and had several partners I worked with. I did hospital and clinic work and also did OB. I sold my practice to the local hospital after those 25 years, and for the next 13 years was employed by the hospital, but still continued working in the clinic, the hospital and doing OB. The government regulations were the deciding factor in becoming employed. Managing payroll and doing billing and collecting were not a problem for me in private practice. For the last 8 years, I dropped the hospital and OB work and only worked in the clinic 3 days a week, and even though I worked 12 hours a day in the clinic, it felt like I was retired the past 8 years. I do miss seeing patients now that I have fully retired, but do not miss any of the meaningless computer clicking and busy work that our government has forced upon us physicians. I think my gradual transition into retirement was very easy and would recommend it to anyone.
After reading the comments I feel quite young again. One thing missed by articles on this topic is just when people began practicing medicine. Medical Careers are often a second career so though practitioners may be 70 they actually practiced 30 years. I finished residency at 29, which is about as early as you can give or take a couple of years in the USA.
I have been in Frontier medicine all my life and now I have shifted to trying to open the dialogue in the places I work to understand how to keep older physicians in the work place. It seems obvious, but somehow it escapes our administrations that maybe a little CME on this topic might help them keep their clinics staffed.
I do think our CME is important but unfortunately our medical societies are a bit silly and should gradually grandfather practitioners in by changing the requirements gradually to better reflect their real life practices. Certainly if one of my colleagues is still into research or “practice improvement projects” at age 75 have at it. I think it is far better to have two partially retired physicians than two fresh NPs or PAs. I think my present CEO has seen the light on that one, and now actively seeks out these individuals. The most important hiring aspect with this group is schedule flexibility. Grand children require great dexterity of schedule and your spouse after all these years would like you to accommodate regular life a bit better. It can be done.
i enjoy the above comments. i am an internist and i still enjoy the practice of medicine and i especially enjoy conversing with my patients who are in their 60s,70s, and even 80s by sharing their life experiences. i am 78yrs old,The practice of medicine has changed a lot. there is more emphasis on EMR,coding and less time spending time with patients by taking a good history and perform a thorough physical examination. there is more reliance labs, MRI, ecchocardiogram and it is very sad
I retired from my full time job a few months before I turned 66 when I felt I couldn’t take it anymore. I worked 3 days per week, then 2 days, then 1 day before I retired completely from medicine. I had promised my self that when I could not take it anymore I would retire. I am not sitting home & knitting. I tutor & do real estate licensing prep which came about due to Covid via the Internet. I have a small business finding people who the government owes money too. As a real estate investor I just sold 1 property which I fixed and rented and now the market is so good that selling it now was the best option. Fri. I make settlement on another property. I love doing what I am doing and even though I practiced over 40 years, medicine is a blur. There is a large part of my graduation class from med school are still practicing in their 70s.
Really liked these comments. I’m a 70 YO psychiatrist still practicing half-time, and loving it. After trying a few managed care panels early on, I gave them up in the mid 1990’s due to their unethical practices. I maintain a solo, fee for service, no insurance filling practice, stay full, and have no plans for full retirement yet. Particularly liked the ideas of speaking in schools.
Enjoyed the article. At age 83 I am still working part time. I’m a Cosmetic Surgeon and operate 2 days a week. Fortunately, my specialty spares me most of the bureaucracy snf regimentation that leads many others to early retirement. I still love my work and although my overhead really leaves me no personal income I have no desire to quit. Fortunately my savings and investments allow this.
I do appreciate having the time for other interests. I am a pilot devoting most of my flying for charitable purposes flying wounded warriors for the Veterans Airlift Coommand, I also run a ranch. (also no profit there!)
Medicine has been a wonderful career and, frankly, I dread the day I will have to fully retire.
Forty-three years in active medical practice as a family physician has been a joy, and a journey I could not have foreseen. Many of my classmates retired in their 60’s describing frustration and overload. Now just reaching my 70’s, I do see a need to slow down and still have no intention of retiring. Having owned two medical practices on two continents, I am glad not to have the administrative responsibility anymore. However, a whole new world opens up to you with the unique clinical experience you have gained. I advise all physicians to keep their CV up to date, and actively seek opportunities for independent practice, more practically part-time. There are many registers and once listed, you can pick what you want. It is not about money anymore either, but almost like a hobby, and a social need. Travel, meet new people, network, discover opportunities, volunteer, provide community service. All are fields that one can select and contribute.
Three important considerations should be borne in mind.
1. Remember to prioritize your family’s needs and relationships.
2. Ensure you meet all the criteria for full licensure. Keep your ACLS, PALS, BLSO, and so on fully up to date as well as continuing to complete CME/CPD. It will keep you up to date.
3. Keep your practical skills going – some never leave you like extracting a fishbone stuck in a tonsil, suturing wounds, reducing a fracture, or phlebotomy.
Last, offer to visit schools as a career adviser/speaker for medicine. Instill the ethic of professionalism in trainee students and doctors. Write about your work, but remember confidentiality. Become a medical fundraiser. Advocate for organ donation and garner donors. Keep a link with a university – education remains a lifelong asset.
I am 69 and a Family Medicine Residency FT Faculty doing Clinics mostly and Inpatient now 10 weeks a year. I used to do OB too but I stopped that 14 years ago. I did up to 16 weeks of inpatient a few years ago and gradually cut that down. I have diabetes and had a bad herniated disc a few years ago and still has sciatica from it. I was doing inpatient teaching rounds on a wheelchair when it was worst. I can tell my patients how to live with diabetes and sciatica better than before. So practicing at an older age can have its pros and cons. Teaching residents can also be better with experience if we also keep up with our knowledge.
In my 41st year of practicing ophthalmology. Gave up surgery several years ago. These days most ophthalmologists want to do as much surgery as possible and avoid treating patients medically and examining for glasses. I do not use an EMR and am able to establish a relationship with patients that includes actively participating in them as whole people rather than “just” their eye conditions. My plan is to continue practicing as long as I am physically able and feel that I am making a contribution to society.
When I was 64 I was staffing ER fulltime (lower volume, 17k) with an Addiction Medicine ‘side gig.’ Loved ER, but nights/weekends and holidays took a toll. My employer then lost the contract, and I couldn’t find another FT position nearby. I am 65 and just accepted a new position as their onsite Medical Director. I work 40 hours a week and still ‘see’ 15-25 clients in 8-10 hours, but it is halftime Telemedicine (from my home office).
What a blessing this hybrid model is! Far less driving fatigue, and the Telemedicine platform makes it fresh.
Be on the lookout for body-friendly ways to keep practicing.
As Telemedicine advances I hope the IRS will make some home office-friendly adjustments to their tax schedule.
(note the above: new career in Addiction Medicine – not ER 🙂
Interesting topic. I’m a pediatric radiologist and have always loved my work. As age 70 approached I found it unthinkable to face an abrupt retirement; in order to ease out of it, I converted to being a “locums” physician for my group, allowing me to work exclusively in the outpatient satellite facilities, usually one day per week, with no call. Now, at age 75, I think I can gracefully give it up with no regrets. It’s been a good ride.
Just retired at 70 from rhuematology, a career I loved. This article nicely addresses the reduced energy level that necessitates workload reduction, rarely mentioned in other writings, and an issue not at all understood by production oriented younger partners (though they are happy for advice by more experienced docs). Also notes the toll increasing MSK issues take on a career, including back pain but not mentioning EMR aggravated carpal tunnel and hand OA (sure don’t miss EMR’s!). My later career years were happily marked by increasing friendships and much deeper patient/physician relationships. Don’t miss complicated medical decision making but certainly do miss lots of contacts with patient friends.
A good perspective. I’m in my seventies and still in private, solo practice. They told me thirty-six years ago that this practice model was a dinosaur and that I would never make it. It’s been very good to me. I get more fulfillment from medicine now than at any other time in my career. It’s all about helping others.
I am 77 and in active practice. I trained as an Obstetrician Gynecologist and was good at it. I stopped doing Ob in 1995, not because I was tired , but because I could no longer afford to continue. By that time I spent over $1 million on malpractice premiums. That is $1 million that could have been better put into a retirement fund. Oddly, I was never sued for anything I did, but was sued for things that would have happened despite what I did — essentially I was sued for saving lives.
Next, I have no idea how much money I forfeited because I became a participating physician for health plans and spent years accepting a “discount.” I gave away my retirement savings. Now I accept no assignment and I am not handicapped by performance based practice guideline.
If I leaned anything in my years of practice It is Keep what you earn.
Great story !
How can you accept no assignment and performance based practice guideline ?
I am an internist.
My issue is how to agree to all guidelines, that does not improve any thing.
We just converted to that model and should have done so years before.
1 – many patients have increasing co-pays and pay nearly what an office charge would have been without insurance.
2 – many will continue to see you similar to a concierge practice.
3 – no mountains of chart reviews so that the insurance can “claw back” previous payments
4 – the “unburdening” is ENORMOUS!
I just retired at 84 on December 2020, had Pediatric practice for 47 years and had plans of covering some Pediatricians 1or 2 days a week but I was offered to take care of well newborns with a group of Neonatology at one hospital and spent 4 years which I enjoyed a lot and kept my mind learning EMR and a change of the private office, it was a great decision!!
Loved this article. My thoughts precisely. I love my career and plan on working until I can’t. We just need to be flexible enough to accept physical changes and make changes in practice accordingly. Congratulations on a beautiful career !