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Retirement Anxieties for Doctors

Upon reaching career twilight, doctors are faced with tough questions: Would they retire and live a scaled down life? Or would they continue to serve in the profession they have so loved until death do them part?

While other professionals retire before or just when they hit 65, doctors—who are near or way past retirement age—are still holding private practice, doing rounds or keeping up with the latest medical updates. There is no definite retirement age for doctors, so some of them continue to stay active in practice even if one is past the customary retirement age. “In medicine, there is no definition when doctors should retire or what the conditions are for them to retire,” says Dr. Shelley de la Vega, chief, Section of Geriatrics, The Medical City. “It’s really up to the person whether he thinks he needs to retire or if he wants to retire. The doctor has a choice.”

With the stress and demanding nature of the medical profession, retirement is generally perceived to be one of the lifetime goals of doctors. Interestingly, this is not always the case because retirement is most often only an option. But why would some doctors opt not to retire, or in some cases delay retirement?

“I suppose those doctors who still continue to practice medicine even after the usual retirement age are probably those who find a lot of fulfillment,” says Dr. de la Vega. “And they feel appreciated because they know they can contribute to the improvement of the community or the country.”

The barriers
But several others have pressing concerns and uncertainties about retirement. How are they going to spend it? Are their funds adequate to sustain them especially if they get sick? Can they still maintain the quality of life they previously enjoyed with no more regular cash inflows? These and many other questions can make a doctor who is near retiring age toss and turn in bed each night.

Though there are doctors who have acted upon these concerns years prior to hitting retirement age, there are some who never had the chance to do so. And the unpreparedness causes the uncertainties which then leads to a lot of anxiety, enough to ruin one’s enjoyment of an age when one should be blissfully enjoying quality time with family and friends.

Retirement anxieties, which may come in different forms, names and impact, influence doctors’ perceptions on retirement in varying degrees. Some of them are detailed below:

  • Financial insecurity – The sufficiency of retirement funds has become one, if not the most, primary consideration when retiring. In fact, according to a survey done by the Philippine College of Surgeons (PCS) among Filipino surgeons, 69 percent of the respondents said they would retire once they have accumulated adequate funds. Though the medical profession relatively promises financial security up until retirement, there are still some doctors who may be worried whether what they have at the moment can maintain the same quality of life in the coming years. If not, they become anxious about making some lifestyle adjustments necessary to be able to live comfortably. Some doctors are also concerned with their ability to afford future expenses through their pension, investment and other sources of income. Financial preparation, therefore, should be performed years before reaching retirement age. Dr. Romeo Fernandez, chairman of PCS’ Committee on Fellows Plan, said in an article that saving and investing could be a good start.
  • Boredom and intellectual stagnancy – Doctors have spent long periods of mind stimulation through long years of studies and years of practice. But when they retire and disengage from their routine, some of them think they would end up doing what they perceive is less intellectually stimulating than medicine.

    In a study entitled Physicians’ Adjustment to Retirement, which was conducted by Bernard Virshup, MD and Robert Coombs, PhD among 238 retired physicians in Los Angeles County, one respondent said that he felt “doing a few household chores and pulling a few weeds in the front yard weren’t quite as important as sewing up somebody’s wound.” Naturally, for a mind that has been so used to doing scientific works, just performing domestic duties, or activities of an entirely different nature, could be less of a challenge.

    Generally, retirement is seen as a season when physical and mental activities are in hiatus. Challenges might be lesser, and stagnation and low-paced style of living might be evident. However, doctors still have an option to feed themselves intellectually. The same survey by the PCS revealed that during retirement, respondents would still engage in other activities that may not be as mind-stimulating as medical practice but could provide an avenue for intellectual stimulation. Examples are pursuing hobbies, engaging in real estate or farming, getting into the academe or having a business.

  • Decreased sense of fulfillment – For doctors who have dedicated years of their lives to service and have felt the dependency of the community, retirement might be a painful phase. It may mean relinquishing power, control and/or authority; and retired people might feel to have lost a sense of accomplishment, according to a counseling website.

Retirement, therefore, inevitably ignites in doctors a fear of losing their identity as a doctor and the feeling of being needed. “Physicians may not be prepared for the change in, or loss of, identity from the’doctor:Many physicians experience a grief reaction when they end their career,” states an article on retirement planning. This loss of identity consequently leads to other emotional difficulties such as isolation, depression and a feeling of deterioration.

But based on the same source, this void could be reconciled by upholding interests that would make a person busy, and along the way, make him feel a sense of self-worth. These would include engaging in community works, or keeping busy as a grandparent.

Living a life
Retirement may mean a lot of things to doctors. Some may take it as giving up professional stature; others find it a boring phase of life. But retirement shouldn’t be an object of dread; rather a source of enjoyment, relaxation and pleasure after long years of hard work.

In retirement, doctors might be leaving the profession they’ve spent years to study and perfect. But leaving it doesn’t mean stopping to live. One respondent of the survey of Drs. Virshup and Coombs has a very positive and realistic view of it: “If doctors devote themselves to their practice, they haven’t taken full advantage of the other wonderful things in life. There are other vistas they should permit themselves to experience.”

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