Are you being weak if you leave medicine or slow down?

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I received an email update from one of my clients who’s an Emergency Medicine physician. After almost a decade of working in the ER, burnout and dissatisfaction with medicine prompted her to find a non-clinical job.

She was just hired for a remote utilization review position with a well-known company.

In her email, she mentioned to me that this career change feels “weak.”

This is not an uncommon feeling among those of you who are considering leaving medicine or titrating back. Today I want to share what she wrote and dive into this topic. Here’s what she wrote: (shared with her permission)

I’ll be honest in saying that I’m still not sure about this new opportunity but I’m liking all the people so far and I think this job has good potential. I think my doubts are really more from “the doctor” side. It’s been ingrained in us to work beyond our basic needs. Anything less is unacceptable. So doing something like this feels “weak.”

What is weakness in the context of being a physician?

An OB/Gyn physician is tired of being woken up in the middle of the night and dealing with the risk of obstetrics. She wants to do Gyn only. Is she being weak?

An internist just had her third child. She wants to work remotely for a health insurance company to be more available for her family. Is she being weak?

An ophthalmologist is having significant anxiety doing cataract surgery. He is considering giving up surgery and only doing medical ophthalmology. Is he being weak?

Some definitions of weak from Merriam-Webster are:

  • Deficient in physical vigor, debilitated
  • Not able to sustain pressure or strain
  • Not able to withstand temptation or persuasion
  • Not factually grounded or logically present

A place we readily go is to tell ourselves if we can’t take the pressure or strain of medicine – in its current dysfunctional state, we must be weak.

Are we supposed to be like the Bionic Man or Wonder Woman? Maybe the Energizer Bunny on steroids?

This is a sticky trap because this reasoning is part of what has enabled the system to keep you working hours that are not healthy and have a very skewed perspective on what is normal.

We also cloud the picture when we get into judgments about what or who is weak or strong.

We all have our weak areas.

We all have our unique strengths.

Cataract surgery would definitely make me weak at the knees. Changing careers, not scary to me.

We are wired differently.

Some physicians have more energy, need less sleep, love working a gadzillion hours. Have more nerve.

Some physicians are OK if a patient dies or if they miss a diagnosis. Others are devastated and can’t get over it.

Some physicians want to be using different skill sets and have a lot of variety. Others prefer stability and a predictable routine.

You can’t compare yourself to anyone else because they are not you.

Using the example of the ophthalmologist who is having anxiety during cataract surgery. He may be having difficulty withstanding the pressure and stress of this surgery. He may be able to work through this, but if he cannot, it doesn’t mean he is a weak person.

It means that this type of surgical setting does not play to his strengths.

You could call it a weak area for him. But it does not mean he is weak. He might have a gift for dealing with angry patients or delivery a tough diagnosis.

It’s not weak if he decides to change the nature of his work, either by not doing surgery or even by leaving ophthalmology.

He is figuring out what is most sustainable for him and will optimize his strengths.

He will end up contributing more if he is in a setting where he’s thriving and not struggling to get by.

Let’s look at some steps for going in the direction of strength

  • Choose a situation – it could be your job, your career direction, or a relationship.
  • Ask yourself, “Is this working for me? Is it sustainable? Is it strengthening or weakening me?
  • Do everything you can to improve your situation before making big changes. You won’t be running away out of weakness.
  • Get objective feedback from people who don’t have an agenda for you.
  • Be honest about what your true needs are. Strength comes from honoring what you need and what works best for you, not denying it or feeling guilty.

It can be hard to know exactly what you need or want, or what changes will be best for you. You often have to try things out.

This is what the Emergency Medicine physician is doing.

She will get to determine what ultimately works best for her.

Her decision to do something about her burnout is a strong decision.

It’s a self-respecting decision.

There is no weakness is saying, “Let me try to find something better for myself.”

Anyone who tells you that it’s weak to take charge of your own life isn’t someone to listen to.

Make sure you aren’t saying this to yourself.

Be back soon!

Heather

 

 

 

 

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8 Comments

  1. Lynette D Charity MD on October 10, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    The reason I managed to sustain a career in medicine for 41 years is because I began to “shed” my “don’t likes” from my practice. In Anesthesiology, your career can be inclusive or specific. I did everything from NICU babies to open heart surgeries. I did it to gain experience, but when I finally got up the gumption, I began to say “no”. Did I feel “weak”, maybe a little, but my rationalization was that the patient needed an experienced clinician who was dedicated to the practice. I didn’t want to be a “jack of all trades; master of none”, so I gradually divested myself of certain subspecialties in Anesthesia. By the time I was 60, I no longer did sick kids, obstetrics, vascular, thoracic and hearts! I still enjoyed outpatient surgeries, but mostly ENT, GYN and Ortho. However just before retiring this year, I worked exclusively at a GI outpatient facility. It was wonderful ending my career still feeling the joy of providing a great anesthetic. But as Ole Blue Eyes would say “I did it MY way!”(For you young people, his name is Frank Sinatra)
    We need to stop “guilt-tripping” over our medical careers! If it ain’t workin’, it ain’t workin’! Find your joy IN medicine or NOT! Be happy. You have only one life to live. Make it count for YOU.

  2. Heather Fork on October 10, 2019 at 3:33 pm

    Love your comments Dr. Charity! You give excellent examples of how you changed what you were doing in anesthesia to stay comfortable with the risk and keep active in your career. This is great sustainabiliy. You had an impressive run and likely due to fact that you listened to yourself and “did it your way.” We can always look at others and think we need to be like them or we should be like them, but that do us any good and often takes us in the wrong direction if we let it. Congratulations on a very long and successful, custom-tailored career.

  3. Jane on October 10, 2019 at 5:37 pm

    Another wonderful helpful post. Another colleague and I went down to .8 FTE. He’s enjoying his young children and I’m more or less keeping my sanity taking care of my 89 year old mom with a lot of help. I’m sending this post to our doctor in charge of wellness in our health system.

    • Heather Fork on October 10, 2019 at 5:44 pm

      Thank you Jane! I’m really glad that you have made some changes to accommodate the fact that you are not only working hard seeing patients, but you have a lot on your plate with caring for your mom. This is true of so many physicians. You work hard and come home and are not eating bon-bons and lying on the couch. The responsibilities can often be overwhelming. Keep on taking steps to care for yourself. You are precious and deserve to the life that works for you.

  4. Jane Zendarski on October 11, 2019 at 12:21 am

    Thank you

  5. Susan Oupadia MD on October 11, 2019 at 2:49 pm

    The stress of hospital politics, toxic group dynamics and the worry over difficult cases was taking its toll on me as a pathologist. My cardiologist husband was feeling the effects of 20 years of night call. Both of our groups were unwilling to agree to part-time. My elderly parents passed away within 18 months of each other. Our dog died. So we did it – we both resigned in our mid 50s and took a sharp left turn – we joined the Peace Corps! We spent two years in the post-Communist country of Albania where we used our skills to teach other docs in our specialties. It was life changing. We are now going to different countries on medical adventures at least twice a year. It’s a new chapter in our lives and we are loving it. Don’t stay in traditional practice if it’s making you uber stressed and unhappy. There’s always something else out there! Don’t give yourself a hard time and don’t give up.

  6. MD Healthy Self on October 23, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    Nice blog. This website has got only some really useful info on it! Also it has excellent and very informative. After going through this great content i came to know lots of things which will help me to enrich my knowledge.

    • Heather Fork on October 23, 2019 at 5:23 pm

      Thank you very much! Glad it is helpful.

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The coaching I have had with you has been life changing."

You helped me find the courage to seek out leadership positions and become a medical director as well as a physician advisor. I am grateful we crossed paths and am a different person because of it. You have inspired me to "believe" in spite of my inner skeptic. I consider you one of my most important mentors and am proud to also call you a friend. This says a lot given the apprehension I felt when I took a chance with our first coaching session. Even though I have already made a successful transition, I still value your ongoing mentorship and can enthusiastically attest that the value of your services is tremendous!

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Lynette Charity

“I was at a crossroads in my medical career. I asked myself, "Do I stay or do I go?" 

I met Heather at the SEAK conference. She and I revisited this question.  Did I want to quit being medicine completely? She helped me to identify my needs, wants, and my vision for my FUTURE, not just in medicine, but in life!!!

She was able to listen to my "ramblings" about becoming a stand-up comic, lounge singer and voice-over actor and translate them into action steps.  I chose to become a composite of all of these. Now I am a more confident, healthier, happier person. I credit this in its entirety to the tutelage I have received and continue to receive from Heather.  She cares. She listens. She was there for ME.  She will be there for YOU!

- Lynette Charity, MD

Anesthesiologist
Gail Miller

“I am forever grateful to Heather for helping me to recognize, I am more than just my M.D." 

Heather helped me understand that I am more than just a doctor and that my experiences in clinical medicine are valuable in so many arenas.  As a result I realized that there are other ways to use my background, still be able to help people and continue to challenge myself and grow.  To that end I discovered coaching - specifically health coaching.  I am on my journey becoming a health coach and truly loving it!

- Gail Miller, MD

OB/Gyn physician
Steve

“Thank you, Heather, for helping me transform my career, my faith and my life."

What started out as an initial thirty-minute consultation call turned into an amazing four-year journey that transformed my life, personally, spiritually and professionally. 

Heather helped me to discover my passions...by doing so, I discovered I still had a calling for medicine but it now came from a place of truth...

Today...my wife and I are opening our first concierge medicine clinic in a community we love. I’m actually excited to have the opportunity to practice medicine the way I believe it’s meant to be, with a focus on the doctor-patient relationship and an emphasis on faith. I know if I had not reached out to Dr. Fork, my life would not be where it is at today.

- Steve Lapke, MD

Papillion, NE
Sue Zimmermann

“Heather gave me the confidence to create a new livelihood by following my heart."

She is incredibly knowledgeable about the range of careers available to physicians and provided me with advice and connections which I would not have found on my own.  From the start she encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and try different things.  I was laid off unexpectedly in early 2017, and Heather gave me the confidence to create a new livelihood by following my heart and making decisions based on trust, not fear.  Now I am enjoying working part-time in a clinical setting in addition to teaching and writing.

- Sue Zimmermann, MD

Orthopedic Surgeon
Devki Patel

After months of struggling to find a non-clinical career that matched my values and passion, I stumbled upon Heather's website which truly changed my life."

Heather's insightful and personalized approach to career coaching made me think outside the box since she took the time to evaluate my personality, values, interests, and preferred lifestyle.

Through her encouragement, practical advice, and professional connections, I was able to find a non-clinical position at a state Medicaid agency that aligned with my passion for population health and serving low-income communities. In addition to her coaching sessions, Heather has built a community of like-minded physicians through her blog, and I feel honored to recommend her to friends and colleagues who seek to make positive changes in their professional and personal lives.

- Devki Patel, MD

Pathologist
Jay Macregor

Working with Heather ultimately helped me leave my job in corporate healthcare and find a path that was much more fulfilling."

My career was going reasonably well but I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling I could do better; or at least find a better long-term career fit.  

I was able to find a surgery job that better aligned with my goals and professional interests.  Additionally, Heather helped me start a consulting business which has allowed me to pursue a true passion: helping medical students, residents, and attendings surgeons navigate the challenges of high-stakes standardized exams.    

If you are reading this as a “Type A” surgeon who doesn’t think coaching is for you, I would encourage you to give Heather a shot.  I’m very glad I did!

- Jay MacGregor, MD

Colorectal Surgeon

“I gained the confidence in myself to develop an action plan that blended the best parts of my experiences and interests into a cohesive career." 

Through our work, I learned to trust myself to make good decisions for my own future – something I hadn’t realized I was struggling with because as an emergency physician, I make life-changing decisions with patients every day. 

By feeding my creativity and interests in other realms of my professional life, I’ve found renewed compassion for my patients and myself, making every shift an opportunity to actually care for people. Thank you Heather. I really couldn’t have made these changes without your help!

- Liz McMurtry, DO

Emergency Medicine Physician
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The simple truth is - Heather Fork totally helped me change my life."

I never would have had the courage to make the changes I’ve made without her unwavering support, wealth of knowledge and commitment. 

When I first started working with Heather, I was downtrodden...I’d been practicing medicine for 20+ years and yet had never quite found my place.  During the first year I worked with Heather, I left the practice I’d been working at, and recreated an entirely new professional purpose.

I’m now an executive and leadership coach, a university professor, and a Brené Brown Daring Way facilitator, and I have never looked back.  I love what I am doing more than at any other time in my professional life and I credit Heather with seeing in me what I was never able to see in myself, until now.

Don’t hesitate, don’t doubt yourself, schedule your time with Heather as soon as possible- she can help you reconnect to your purpose and reinvent your life.

- Amie Langbein, DO

Family Physician
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I signed up for coaching with Heather and it transformed my life. She helped me get clear on what I wanted my life to look like. We reviewed my skills, values, and strengths. She instilled hope in me that change IS possible after 50 years! 

The outcome is that I have created a life I love! I practice endocrinology part-time and own a life coaching business! Coaching with Heather is one of the best investments I have made in my life. 

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