10 Reasons to Consider a Nonclinical Job to Defeat Burnout

By Jimmy Turner, MD
The Physician Philosopher

Editor: I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I didn’t say that my entrepreneurial efforts haven’t played a HUGE roll in reducing my burnout over the past 3 years. In fact, it is the revenue that I earn through my side hustle (which is quickly becoming my co-hustle) that allowed me to go part-time only 3 years into my career. There are certainly reasons a doctor should consider a non-clinical job.

The truth is that non-clinical work provides freedom in a very real way.  And, that’s exactly what this guest post, written by Dr. Sylvie Stacy, MD, MPH a preventive medicine physician and blogger at Look for Zebras is all about.  If you like what you read, consider checking out her book 50 Nonclinical Careers for Physicians was recently published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.

There are many nonclinical job options for physicians. I recently published a book describing 50 of them, including jobs in the pharmaceutical industry, health administration, managed care, health technologies, management consulting, and more.

I often hear physicians who are overly stressed or exhausted with patient care mention wanting to “leave medicine.” I never recommend making a career change out of frustration; however, I’ve witnessed a remarkable impact on both personal happiness and professional fulfillment in some physicians when transitioning to a nonclinical job.

Here are 10 reasons why a nonclinical job can be a solution to burnout.

1. You’ll Use Your Medical Experience Without Actually Taking Care of Patients

The practice of medicine itself (ie, diagnosing and treating disease in individual patients) is felt to be the #1 cause of burnout by physician burnout prevention expert The Happy MD, as well as other organizations such as AAFP. Similar frequently-cited causes include not having enough time to spend with patients and unattainable patient expectations.

Treating sick patients can be mentally exhausting. So cantreating patients who are dying, have complex conditions, are demanding, or don’t adhere to recommendations.

Nonclinical work is, in most cases, less emotionally draining.

2. Having a Nonclinical Career Requires a Job Change

Beyond actual patient care, there can be many other aspects of a physician’s job that contribute to burnout. Some aspects might be broadly related to clinical work, but others are specific to a physician’s current job or employer.

Too often, unhappy physicians continue to slog through jobs they don’t enjoy because they feel they aren’t qualified for work that actually appeals to them. Or, they are unaware of the many options available to them, or they feel stuck for any number of other reasons.

For doctors in clinical positions, transitioning to a nonclinical career requires a job change. In most cases, this will be accompanied by loss of a majority of the causes of one’s burnout.

Of course, all jobs – even nonclinical ones – come with occasional challenges that are negative and stress-inducing. It’s important to identify what your stressors are before you select a nonclinical career to pursue. In doing so, you can ensure that you avoid the main culprits in the next job you take.

3. Nonclinical Jobs Offer a More Regular, Reasonable Work Schedule

In general, nonclinical jobs have better work schedules than clinical jobs. Most are with companies that operate on a typical 9-to-5, Monday through Friday business schedule. While long days and extra hours are definitely needed from time to time when there are important projects and looming deadlines, many physicians working in these positions have really reasonable schedules.

In most nonclinical jobs, there is no on-call requirement and no obligation to rotate through a weekend work schedule.

Moreover, it’s easier to leave the office during the work day for a personal appointment, to pick up a sick kid from school, or another matter.

The result of this is a better work-life balance and less of sense of exhaustion.

4. Feel Well-Compensated for Your Work

On average across all nonclinical jobs, compensation is somewhat lower than what physicians can earn by practicing clinically. But this is a moot point for many physicians, because a high percentage don’t feel fairly compensated in their clinical work to begin with, including almost half of internists.

So, a nonclinical physician’s salary may be slightly lower than what his clinical peers are earning, but other factors more than make up for this. The foremost factor for many nonclinical physicians is spending time doing work that is enjoyable to them.

Your actual salary matters less than whether you feel like you’re being paid what you’re worth. Being paid what you’re worth is a great feeling to have, and one that’s felt by many doctors with nonclinical jobs.

5. Lose the Chaos for a Calmer Work Environment

Jobs outside of direct patient care settings tend to be less chaotic than working on a hospital ward or in a clinic. There are no codes being called. Your computer isn’t in the middle of a nurse’s station. You’re not being simultaneously asked to address three different complaints while putting in a stat order and signing a stack of papers.

Most nonclinical jobs are in an office, where it’s simply more serene. In fact, several nonclinical options often allow physicians to work from home. Examples include medical writing and utilization review jobs.

6. See Tangible Results of Your Work

Some types of clinical work can come with a sense of powerlessness. Physicians treat patients in poor socioeconomic situations and who are facing various challenges that prevent medical treatment from having its intended effect.

For some doctors, a nonclinical career can allow them to more easily see the impact of their efforts, which can help them find meaning in their work.

As a few examples, a nonclinical physician may be instrumental in bringing an investigational drug to market, implementing a state-wide public health program, advising a company on an acquisition, or developing new health-related legislation.

7. Nonclinical Jobs Address our Drive as Physicians to Want to Help People

Most of us went into medicine because we wanted to help people live healthier lives, less impacted by disease and disability. We can absolutely accomplish this in nonclinical jobs. Nonclinical work of many types depends on our medical knowledge, skills, and experience to improve the health-related service or product delivered by an organization.

As opposed to clinical work in which we usually help individuals, nonclinical work tends to help populations or entire communities of people. For instance, the health officer of a county department of health works to improve the overall health of the county’s population, educate residents about disease prevention, direct the medical caresupplied to specific populations, and advance population-based health programs and policies.

As another example, a physician working in medical affairs for a pharmaceutical company might direct the medical strategy for a new drug as it goes to market, ensuring that educational materials provided to clinicians are accurate and helping to ensure that patients have access to the drug.

Though physicians in a nonclinical role don’t spend time writing prescriptions or performing surgeries, they use their medical expertise to address health and disease on a broader level.

8. There is Greater Autonomy in Nonclinical work

Loss of autonomy is widely felt to be a contributor to physician burnout.

Nonclinical work, like any other work, means you need to perform tasks based on the company’s objectives and your boss’s requests. That’s the nature of employment. However, many nonclinical roles that are fitting for physicians have a high degree of autonomy. Most are in leadership roles or medical director positions in which the physician is, to at least some extent, considered the medical authority with a company or division.

Physicians in nonclinical positions may spend significant time in meetings and “fighting fires,” but a lot of time is dedicated to longer-term projects and initiatives that can be approached based on one’s own modus operandi. This is in stark contrast to a day of back-to-back patient appointments.

9. Less First-Hand Involvement in Regulation, Red Tape, and Politics<

Nonclinical jobs aren’t immune to regulation, red tape, and politics. The pharmaceutical industry, for example, is highly regulated, with FDA regulations guiding or influencing most decisions that are made.

In spite of this, physicians working in nonclinical roles are less likely to have their own responsibilities negatively impacted by these matters than in clinical jobs.

10. Minimal Concern with Credentialing, Licensing, and Lawsuits

Finally, physicians facing challenges related with credentialing and licensing are less likely to be affected by these when searching for or beginning a nonclinical job. It’s often a good idea for nonclinical physicians to keep their licenseand board certification up-to-date, if possible; however, the inability to do so won’t prevent you from being hired for certain positions.

Physicians who are not directly managing patients are also much less likely to be sued. Healthcare is a litigious environment and, unfortunately, this can impact our patient care decisions and cause significant anxiety. For those who worry about malpractice lawsuits, a nonclinical job can be a big load off the shoulders in this regard.

Your Own Drivers of Burnout May Be Unique

Those were 10 ways that a nonclinical job can hedge burnout. Some of them may not apply to you. Your personal situation might be accompanied by entirely different reasons that a nonclinical job is a great choice.

Regardless of how many of these points resonated with you, it’s important to determine what your own current or potential drivers of burnout are. The most appropriate action to address or prevent burnout for yourself depends on those. This action might be starting to explore nonclinical career options, but it could be something entirely different, such as taking a sabbatical, negotiating fewer hours, hiring an assistant, or approaching your company’s leadership about a challenge you’re facing.

Every physician’s situation is unique. Considering one of the many types of nonclinical careers might be a great way to begin taking steps to ensure your own fulfillment.


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