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Planning for a successful transition to retirement

Dr Chanaka Wijeratne, MBBS, FRANZCP, MD, Adjunct Associate Professor with affiliations to University of Notre Dame and University of New South Wales

Thursday, 12 October 2023

Golden nest egg for successful retirement

Deciding it’s time to hang up the stethoscope is not something many doctors find easy or even able to consider. Retirement can be a difficult adjustment and planning ahead is crucial to a successful transition.

Keen to understand the barriers to retirement and find solutions to assist his medical colleagues to plan for the transition away from medicine, Dr Chanaka Wijeratne has been researching both causes and solution, supported by grants from Avant. A psychiatrist with expertise in treating older people with mental illness and neurodegenerative disorders, Dr Wijeratne’s interest in doctors’ retirement started almost 20 years ago, when the Medical Council of NSW asked him to assess ageing doctors who may have an impairment.

Doctors need to know when it’s time

Reflecting the ageing population in the community, the Australian population of doctors is getting older. “Many are working into their 70s and 80s and some may experience mild cognitive impairment. They are very dedicated, good doctors who've had great careers but are at risk of having a bad end to their working lives,” says Dr Wijeratne.

"Medical practitioners don’t usually receive any guidance on planning for retirement or determining its timing. Our recent Avant-funded research has shown that almost 40% of practitioners aged 55-plus in Australia have no intention of, or are unsure about, retiring”, says Dr Wijeratne. “Doctors are retiring five years later than the general population, with GPs and psychiatrists being the least likely to have a retirement intention.”

Barriers to retirement

Two of the main factors that reduced the odds of retiring were self-identification with work and having sufficient financial resources. “The culture of medicine is often to work until you drop. You've invested so much time and energy on education and looking after your patients, it may not have left room for much else in terms of social interests, hobbies or even relationships. And you often haven't sought advice on how to look after your money well,” Dr Wijeratne adds.

Medicine is a taxing career, although older doctors tend to experience the lowest levels of psychological distress and burnout, and believe they are ageing successfully. However, the profession has never paid much attention to the needs of late-career practitioners, in particular supporting the transition away from demanding and complex careers.

Developing practical tools

Further funding from Avant, and assistance in recruiting doctors for the research, provided support for the next step of this project for Dr Wijeratne and his colleagues; looking at ways to support doctors with retirement planning. This included delivery of online educational modules to help doctors in the pre-retirement phase to start to think, plan or form an intention about how and when they will retire. The modules were designed to promote positive retirement planning behaviour, in particular, increasing the number and specificity of goals.

“While there were no changes in the control group, we found that the group who completed all the modules reported reduced work centrality (they started to think about life outside of work more) and changed their perceptions about social, emotional and health goals. We also saw this group improve in their mastery of retirement planning - they felt like retirement planning was within their control,” Dr Wijeratne explains.

Dr Wijeratne is now looking at further improving outcomes by testing additional interventions, including the use of small peer review groups for late-career practitioners to discuss relevant issues, and to determine how a confidential self-assessment tool for cognition may influence behaviour.

Starting to think about life after medicine when you still have time to plan and take action, is more likely to result in a happier retirement than leaving it until later, when your options could be limited.

Avant Grants and Awards

Avant has several programs to support projects that advance the provision of healthcare. These programs fund initiatives driving quality, safety and professionalism in medicine, and are awarded to doctors across career stages, practices and charities.

Find out more about Avant’s Research Grants and Awards.

  1. Wijeratne, C., & Earl, J. (2021). A guide for medical practitioners transitioning to an encore career or retirement. Medical Journal of Australia, 214(1), 12 14.e1. onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.5694/mja2.50870
  2. This article was originally published in Connect magazine issue 20.

Disclaimers

This publication is not comprehensive and does not constitute legal or medical advice. You should seek legal or other professional advice before relying on any content, and practise proper clinical decision making with regard to the individual circumstances. Persons implementing any recommendations contained in this publication must exercise their own independent skill or judgement or seek appropriate professional advice relevant to their own particular practice. Compliance with any recommendations will not in any way guarantee discharge of the duty of care owed to patients and others coming into contact with the health professional or practice. Avant is not responsible to you or anyone else for any loss suffered in connection with the use of this information. Information is only current at the date initially published.

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