COMMENTARY

When Should Psychiatrists Retire?

Dinah Miller, MD

Disclosures

November 17, 2021

I remember a conversation I had at the end of my training with an older psychiatrist who was closing his practice. I was very excited to finally be a psychiatrist, and therefore a bit shocked that someone would voluntarily end a career I was just beginning. After all, psychiatry is a field where people can practice with flexibility, and a private practice is not an all-or-none endeavor.

"Dinah," this gentleman said to me, sensing my dismay, "I'm 74. I'm allowed to retire."

Like many retired psychiatrists, this one continued to come to grand rounds every Monday, dressed in a suit, which was followed by lunch with friends in the dining room. He continued to be involved in professional activities and lived to be 96.

Another dear friend practiced psychiatry until she entered hospice after a 2-year battle with cancer. Others have whittled down their practices, hanging on to a few hours of patient care along with supervision, teaching, and involvement with professional organizations.

In discussing retirement with some of my peers, it's become immediately clear that each psychiatrist approaches this decision — and how they choose to live after it's made — with a unique set of concerns and goals.

Fatigued by Bureaucracy

Dr Robin Weiss is in the process of "shrinking" her private practice. She is quick to say she is not retiring, but planning to scale back to 1 day a week starting next summer.

"I want to work less so I have more time for my grandchildren, friends, and travel, and to finally write more." She also hopes to improve her Ping-Pong game and exercise habits.

"I'm so tired of prior authorizations, and the one day a week of patients I've been committed to feels just about right."

During the pandemic, Weiss relinquished her office and she plans to continue with a virtual practice, which allows her more flexibility in terms of where she is physically located.

"The pandemic didn't influence my decision to scale back, but it did play a role in deciding to give up my office," she said.

A Decision Precipitated by Medical Reasons

Dr Stephen Warres is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Maryland who fully retired from practice in June 2021. He started scaling back a few years ago, when he had to give up his office because the building was undergoing renovations.

"I was seeing some patients from my home, but for 2 years I had been working one or two weekends a month at the Baltimore city jail, and I thought of that as my final act. It was a setting I had never worked in, and I left there 4 months before the pandemic started."

Dr Warres notes that his decision to retire was propelled by his diagnosis of Parkinson's disease at the end of 2019.

"So far I only have a resting tremor, but this is an illness in which cognitive decline is a possibility."

The Emotional Rollercoaster That Can Await

Dr Warres said a myriad of emotions come with retirement, beginning with a sense of guilt.

"Why am I leaving when others practice longer? I read about a psychiatrist in California who was still practicing when he died at 102. And the last patient whom I saw when I left practice was a man I started treating just 2 days after I started residency in 1976! When I told him I would be retiring, he found a new psychiatrist who is 82 years old."

This was followed, he said, by a sense of shame.

"My father was a radiologist and he retired at 76, the same age that I am now, but he volunteered 2 days a week for the state attorney's office until he was 92, and I'm not doing that."

What Dr Warres is choosing to do instead is indulge his many interests, including reading; writing; and practicing on the instrument he's recently taken up, the harmonium.

This cascade of emotions led to one that was arguably more pleasurable: a sense of immense relief.

"When I got my first request after retirement for a prior authorization, I felt jubilant, like I wanted to throw a party! I felt like I had been walking with a backpack full of weights, and only after the weights were removed did I realize how much lighter it was."

"I loved doing psychotherapy, but more and more psychiatry was not what I had signed up for. I'm relieved that I no longer have to keep up with psychopharmacology. In a way, the Parkinson's diagnosis sealed the deal. I felt that it gave me license, like a get out of jail card, to retire."

But even this sense of palpable relief hasn't closed the cycle of emotions Dr Warres is experiencing over his retirement.

"You know, the more relieved I am, the more guilt I feel."

As Intellectually Adventurous as Ever

Marshal Folstein, MD, of Miami, Florida, retired over a decade ago after a long academic career at Johns Hopkins and as chairman of psychiatry at Tufts University. His Facebook profile states, "Leading the quiet life of a retired Professor."

He said retirement was an easy decision for he and his wife Susan, herself a former academic psychiatrist, which allowed them to immediately change gears.

"At the beginning, we traveled a bit. I wanted to continue with music, so I took flute lessons, and then I played flute in my synagogue, so now I have recently retired from that. I spend my time reading Talmud and the Bible and I keep asking questions. I found a new group of people, some are physicians, and we study and argue. I just turned 80 and I'm intellectually busy and happy."

The Retirement Coach

Barbara Fowler, PhD, is a lifespan services consultant at Johns Hopkins University, working with faculty and staff getting ready to retire. She said that the university has methods in place to make this decision less jarring.

"The School of Medicine has a faculty transition plan that lets people cut back over a set period of time while still keeping benefits. It gives doctors a way to wind up their research and clinical responsibilities, and this is negotiated on an individual level."

When she's discussing with someone the possibility of retirement, Dr Fowler likes to begin by asking them to define what exactly they mean by that word.

"The stereotyped concept is that someone stops what they are doing completely and spends their time playing golf or canasta," she said. "But the baby boomers are redefining that. Physicians often continue to see some patients or participate in professional organizations. Some people are happy to stop doing the work they have done for years and go do something different, whereas others are interested in scaling back on work activities while adding new ones."

Timing It Right

So, when should psychiatrists retire? The most obvious time to reconsider is when the doctor is no longer able to perform work-related obligations owing to physical or cognitive limitations.

Financial constraints are another factor that comes into play. How necessary is it to work to pay the bills?

"When the kids are out of college and the mortgage is paid off, then there may be the financial means to reconceptualize work life and how you want to rebuild it," Dr Fowler said. "Because whether or not people are getting paid, they want to be productive."

For some, this may come in the form of working in a reduced capacity. Certain practices are more amenable to part-time work or a gradual decrease in hours. A private practice may allow for more control than a position with an institution where an employee may have to continue working full-time or not at all.

For others, that productivity might be measured in pursuing their own interests or assisting with family members who need their help. Grandchildren can be an important factor, especially if they live at a distance or childcare is needed. These issues became all the more salient when the pandemic shuttered daycare centers and schools, and people limited contact with those outside their households.

Retirement for all physicians is wrapped in issues of identity; for those who have not cultivated other interests, retirement can be a huge loss with no clear path forward. And in an environment where there is a psychiatrist shortage, healthcare workers are deemed heroes, and human distress is mounting, retirement may come with mixed feelings of guilt, even when the psychiatrist wants a change and is ready for the next chapter. Finally, for those who have launched programs or research projects, there may be the fear that there is no one else who can or will carry on, and that all will be lost.

Yet these considerations focus on the negative, whereas Dr Fowler says she likes to frame retirement in a positive light.

"The key is having more choices; looking for activities that inspire passion; and asking, how can you live your best life?"

Dinah Miller is coauthor of Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, both in Baltimore.

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