Who me? Retire? How to plan, transition and adapt

Have you ever thought about what your transition to retirement might look like? Will you cut all ties at once or slowly step back and focus on another passion such as research or teaching? Or have you made no firm plans at all?  

If you’re in the last category, you’re not alone. A/Prof Chanaka Wijeratne, clinical lead in old age psychiatry at Prince of Wales Hospital, says the data shows many Australian doctors retire later or have no firm plans in place to transition to life post-practice. 

Dr Wijeratne’s research suggests that planning your next steps is the key to satisfaction in retirement, such as greater feelings of purpose and better opportunities for intellectual and social pursuits. However, research by Macquarie University indicates older practitioners are also at greater risk of complaints, making it even more critical to have a plan to retire on your own terms. It can be helpful to have peers around you who can be gentle but honest with you about any potential blind spots or decline in performance, but also to have a plan in place if an illness becomes an issue unexpectedly. 

A challenging transition 

It can be difficult early in your medical professional career or even mid-career to think about its end, especially when it involves work that you love. In fact, a cross-sectional survey found one-third of older Australian practitioners reported no intention of retiring.  

This is echoed by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare research which indicated a 21% rise in the number of full-time workers aged 65+ in the medical field, between 2013 to 2018.  

However, Dr Wijeratne and his peers strongly encourage doctors not to view retirement as single endpoint and recommend practitioners have an initial transition to retirement plan developed by age 55.  

So why is the transition to retirement so difficult for doctors? Some can find their self-identity is bound closely with their profession. In fact, in a survey undertaken to examine the professional and psychosocial factors affecting the intention of Australian medical practitioners to retire, the factors include: 

  • relationships with patients 

  • cognitive stimulation 

  • finances 

  • and most overwhelmingly – a sense of purpose/goals.  

Dr Wijeratne and his colleagues also felt that factors included: 

  • an intrinsic difficulty detaching from medicine 

  • a feeling of responsibility for patients 

  • lack of interests outside of medicine and 

  • fear of potential changes in the relationship with their partner. 

This suggests it is imperative for doctors to actively participate in planning for retirement to ease the transition, find a better sense of control and enhance your ability to adapt to the changes emotionally.   

Understanding leads to embracing 

Transitioning to an encore career or retirement can be complex. Dr Wijeratne’s ‘A guide for medical practitioners transitioning to an encore career or retirement’ spells out the resources needed to effectively make the transition – from the financial, emotional, social and cognitive resources you’ll need, to the questions you need to honestly ask yourself and your confidants.  

This guide outlines three phases: 

  • pre-retirement, where you continue to work but you anticipate and prepare for retirement 

  • transitions – where decisions are made about how and when you will step back from work and 

  • adaptation – where you move into your new phase of life or encore career. 

From those who have gone before 

Dr Stephen Howle OAM planned his retirement after 43 years of service as a GP to the Tamworth community.  

Dr Howle  agrees that planning really is the key; there is nothing worse than being forced into sudden retirement because of illness, health impairment or another event.  

“My transition plan was to gradually reduce my face-to-face general practice. This gave regular patients the opportunity to find a younger practitioner. I spent my reduced clinical hours becoming involved in other general practice pursuits (eg practice accreditation, Medical Council work) that were enjoyable and mentally stimulating."   

But how difficult was it to formally cut the ties? Dr Howle admits it wasn’t easy.  

“The final goodbye was difficult. The loss of engagement with long-standing patients, the guilt of deserting them, as well as the separation from the staff I worked with, all added to the initial sadness. However, I recognised I wasn’t indispensable”. 

Dr Howle continues to contribute as part of several not-for-profit health organisations and has pursued other personal interests.  

Excel in an encore career 

An encore career can provide you with the opportunity to combine working as a doctor with an opportunity to embrace a passion you could never quite find the time for.  

It can also provide an opportunity to utilise your professional skills, experience and expertise to give back mentoring up-and-coming doctors, or by being involved in research that you have been passionate about.  

Regardless of the avenue you choose, thoughtfully planning and sharing that plan with those around you will make the transition more enjoyable and increase your ability to finish on your own terms.  

A/Prof (Adjunct) Chanaka Wijeratne is Clinical Lead in Old Age Psychiatry, Prince of Wales Hospital and a health assessor for the Medical Council of NSW. 

...Planning your next steps is the key to satisfaction in retirement