Physician Transition Story: Carla Hightower



carla hightower

Dear Readers, in this blog, one of my clients shares her career transition story. As you will see, the non-clinical path does not follow an orderly set of steps, unlike becoming a physician. In these less predictable waters, there is uncertainty of course, but there is also opportunity and adventure. Take it away Carla.

Shining the Light on a Non-Clinical Career Path

Recently, I left medicine and became a physician advisor and now a freelance medical writer. I am experiencing a tour along a unique, winding road of possibilities. My years working in anesthesiology prepared me for very different challenges, so leaving clinical practice was not a simple matter. Unlike the trajectory for becoming a doctor, a non-clinical path is rarely straight; however, I am discovering that there are plenty of people to help guide the way. My story is about making choices and how networking with other people has positively influenced my direction.

While still practicing anesthesiology, I attended business school and gave serious thought to working in the pharmaceutical or biotech industries, but I did not feel much desire to climb the corporate ladder. Therefore, after graduation, I stayed in my clinical career. However, around my 20th year, the stress, declining compensation and dwindling resources could no longer be ignored.  Finally, when a hospital administrator did away with critical supplies in the operating rooms, I was absolutely certain it was time for a change.

While exploring my options, a friend introduced me to a physician advisor at a revenue cycle, health care consulting firm that helps hospitals comply with Medicare regulations and improve their reimbursements.The company was growing and recruiting physicians for on-the-job training; I applied and was immediately hired. In this position,my job was to determine whether particular patients met medical necessity criteria to be treated as inpatients or outpatients. I learned to review medical records and write consults providing evidence-based support for the level of care recommended. Primarily because of this job, I determined that becoming a better writer was something I really wanted to pursue.After working with the company for one year, a ruling for the Medicare inpatient prospective payment systems profoundly impacted the industry, and I started looking for something different.

Briefly, I considered starting from scratch in a wholly unrelated industry. Real estate, perhaps? This time, I recognized that speaking with a number of people in the field was the most effective way to demystify any new industry. I called several friends working in the real estate business and got a sense of the necessary skills and challenges involved. Next, I arranged a meeting with a seasoned real estate broker. His unforgettable, first question was an emphatic “WHY-Y-Y?” that made me wince internally. Despite the awkwardness of that introduction, the broker was very gracious and helped me explore all the pros and cons of the business. He cautioned, “this business is more about luck than skill,” and “don’t go into this business if you need to make money!” I took these remarks as cues to expand my search.

In the meantime, a credentialing application for a locum tenens anesthesiology opportunity sat lurking on my desk at home. I dreaded the thought of completing the paperwork and the sinking feeling of caring for patients in a remote facility. I just could not make myself do it. Finally, I called the recruiter, declined the opportunity, and felt a massive weight lifted from my shoulders. In that moment, I firmly committed to doing something I enjoyed rather than settling for something that was not a good fit.

My thoughts kept circling back to becoming a writer. In fact, I was already enrolled in medical writing classes at a nearby university. Given my additional interest in starting a business, I participated in a 6-week freelance medical writing program. This opportunity was a gigantic step in the right direction. The instructors and other students shared their stories and advice, which gave me a real sense that I could make it in this field.

My first medical writing client was a well-respected consumer health education website. The client needed fresh, comprehensive articles on various diseases, and my writing instructor generously recommended me for the opportunity. I provided an initial sample pieced that was very well-received, and I was asked to write more articles! Upon the momentous arrival of my first paycheck as a writer, I affirmed my capacity to succeed in this business.

To refine and shape my direction, I continued gathering information and advice from other writers. So far, I have interviewed several freelance writers whom I found in the American Medical Writers Association directory. With their guidance, I have identified the kinds of writing opportunities that are right for me. For instance, when I was curious about regulatory writing, I interviewed several experienced regulatory writers. I was told that working with cutting edge research is really cool, as long you don’t mind digging through thousands of pages of clinical data and working under extremely tight deadlines.

Today, I am still evolving, making choices, and getting even more comfortable with uncertainty. It is impossible to see the precise ending, because a curvy path connects to such a wealth of possibilities. On this journey, there’s no room for old baggage, such as worrying what other people think I SHOULD be doing. When navigating detours and forks in the road, I am recognizing the warning signs of ill-suited options while patiently searching for the right choice for me. Fortunately, there is never a need to stumble in confusion when others are so willing to share stories, offer candid advice, and shine the light.

Carla Hightower, MD, MBA



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  1. on July 23, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    I think it is the Shoulds that have the greatest impact on our decisions not to leave medicine. We should be happy, we should be grateful for our education, we should be the bread winners and we should suffer in silence. What would we say to our unhappy patients? Let go of the shoulds and find your passion.
    Thank you for the insight. Be well, Tracey

    • Heather Fork on July 24, 2014 at 4:07 am

      Tracey, thank you very much for your great comment! You articulated very well how we get caught up in doing what is expected of us, instead of what we feel called to do. When we can answer that calling for ourselves, we often end up doing more for others and the world than when we focus on doing what is expected. AND this is where we find our joy. By the way, I enjoyed reading some of your blogs on Keep on doing what inspires you! Heather

  2. Ann Roberson D.O. on July 24, 2014 at 8:30 am

    Great insight from Carla….I really enjoyed reading about your path to change from clinical medicine to medical writing. You are brave and enlightened! Very much appreciated the sharing of your journey, thank you, Ann.

    • Heather Fork on July 24, 2014 at 12:20 pm

      Hi Ann, I really appreciate your taking the time to read Carla’s blog and offer your encouraging support! I am very grateful to all of my clients who are on this path of finding satisfaction and meaning in their careers. When my clients are able to share their stories, it gives hope to others that work doesn’t need to be “just a job” and it isn’t unreasonable to want our career to to be fulfilling and enjoyable. All the best to you, Heather

  3. Denise on July 24, 2014 at 11:28 am

    This article was an excellent read and hits close to home for me. I am a practicing anesthesiologist but have only been out of training for 2 years and am already exploring other fields. I have jumped one hurdle in the sense that I do not let others’ expectations about how happy I SHOULD be to be a doctor overshadow the stress and dread associated with my job. I too looked at real estate and joined a local investment group and purchased my first investment property. Unlike the author I have always had a passion for real estate. Despite my increase in cost of living since practicing, I refuse to be held hostage by my career and will ultimately choose happiness over lifestyle.

    Thank you

    • Heather Fork on July 24, 2014 at 2:19 pm

      Denise, thank you for responding to Carla’s blog and sharing about your own situation. It sounds like you have worked hard to focus on listening to yourself and finding out what is true for you. Good luck with continuing to follow the path that is right for you. Please send us an update if you like. Heather

  4. Trusandra Taylor, MD on July 24, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    Dear Carla,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I especially appreciate your advice about making choices and not worrying about what other people think you SHOULD be doing.

    I have practiced medicine for the past 33 years and anticipate transitioning to semi-retirement until I decide to fully retire within the next 5-7 years. I want to begin a non-clinical career and discontinue direct patient care. I also have chosen medical writing as my future career. I enjoy writing and want to further my education. What medical writing classes do you recommend? What advice do you give to help establish a freelance medical writing business?

    Your non-clinical path may be uncertain, but it sounds like your journey has begun providing you with rewarding opportunities.

    Thanks again for sharing,

    • Heather Fork on July 24, 2014 at 2:28 pm

      Hello Trusandra,

      Thank you kindly for taking the time to read and respond to Carla’s piece. Congratulations to you for your many years of clinical practice! Very impressive indeed. Good for you for thinking about what kind of non-clinical work you might like to segue into. Carla took Emma Hitt’s 6 week freelance medical writing course. She also took writing courses through the University of Chicago Graham School. Emma Hitt’s course helps you prepare for a freelance writing career. Good luck with your new direction! Heather

  5. John Clark on April 29, 2017 at 7:39 pm

    Dear Carla, Let me congratulate you on being such an amazing and accomplished person. You should be
    very proud and happy about your long string of accomplishments. I am saddened that you appear to be unhappy and fulfilled at this point in your life, I am certain that this will be short lived. Sometime when people have so many wonderful choices, they find it difficult to choose one. I am cheering loud for you.
    I can arrange for a PIZZA. Maybe it will help!
    Kindest Regards,


    • Heather Fork on April 30, 2017 at 3:07 am

      Hello John, thank you very much for commenting on Carla Hightower’s blog. I just heard from her yesterday and she is doing great. Thank you for your supportive comments for her and vote of confidence. I hope all is going well in your world.

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