Retire early? These docs did--and came back

May 23, 2003

Four doctors who quit medicine tell us why they "unretired," and how they feel about being back in practice. Plus, some tips from the experts to help you handle your own transitions.

 

Retire early? These docs did—and came back

Jump to:Choose article section... Charles Schiffer Daniel Sullivan James Nobles Ted Stuart Advice on retirement planning  

Four doctors who quit medicine tell us why they "unretired," and how they feel about being back in practice. Plus, some tips from the experts to help you handle your own transitions.

By Berkeley Rice
Senior Editor

With all the pressures in medicine these days, many doctors find themselves thinking about early retirement. While most just dream about it, many actually achieve it, often long before they're 65. But then what?

Unfortunately, many retirees haven't saved enough—or planned carefully enough—to finance their dream. For many of them, the stock market's recent decline has made their plans obsolete. Others who launched second careers realize that perhaps medicine wasn't so bad after all. Consider what happened to the following physicians after they retired.

Charles Schiffer

After practicing nephrology for more than 20 years in Albany and Troy, NY, Charles Schiffer retired in 1995 at the age of 49. "I specialized in dialysis," he explains, "and the death and dying had become too depressing. You get very close to people who come in for treatment three times a week, and each time someone died it was like losing a member of the family. After a while, I'd just had enough.

"I'd been thinking about making a switch for a while," says Schiffer, "and fortunately, money wasn't an issue. My practice had been very successful, and my kids were grown and had left home by then."

In preparation for his career change, Schiffer went to business school and earned an MBA before he stopped practicing. Then he joined a local brokerage firm. "My former colleagues thought I was nuts," says Schiffer, "but many of them eventually became my clients."

Life in the investment world was challenging and fun at first, particularly in the boom years of the late '90s. "No matter what company you chose," Schiffer recalls, "chances were the stock would only go up." Nevertheless, he gradually became disenchanted with the brokerage business, particularly when the bear market brought sharp declines.

During Schiffer's years at the firm, other brokers often asked him for medical advice. Realizing how much he enjoyed helping them, he began thinking about getting back into medicine. Fortunately, he had kept up his medical license, and had attended CME courses in general internal medicine.

When Schiffer finally quit the brokerage firm last July, he didn't return to nephrology. Instead he took a job with a group of hospitalists at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady. "It's a perfect position for me at this stage of my life," says Schiffer, now 56. "I see acute care patients at only one location, compared to the five hospitals I covered in my former practice. As a hospital employee, I don't have to run a practice or do the billing. The hospital takes care of all that for me."

Back in medicine, colleagues still ask Schiffer for advice. This time it's investment advice. He gladly provides it.

Daniel Sullivan

Daniel Sullivan, then 66, retired five years ago after 36 years in family practice in Ohio. "I was part of a big group," he recalls, "and I just got tired of all the hassles."

After a few months off, however, Sullivan began working part time as a locum tenens to supplement his retirement income. His locum assignments took him to the Australian outback, several Indian reservations in the Dakotas, and various practices in the Midwest.

The locum jobs didn't pay as well as private practice, but Sullivan didn't mind. "The work kept me busy, and it wasn't as stressful because I didn't have to worry about running an office." With a sizable nest egg—invested conservatively, he thought—Sullivan figured he'd be able to live comfortably with only occasional locum assignments. But when the market plunged, he lost about 40 percent of his retirement savings.

Now 71 and living in Chesterfield, MO, he recently took a full-time job at an urgent care center in St. Louis. He puts in three 12-hour shifts a week, and earns only 75 percent of what he did in private practice. But he enjoys being a salaried employee rather than a partner. "I don't have to worry about running a practice," he says, "or how many patients I see each day. I just take care of whoever comes in, and people are glad to see me."

Sullivan attended summer writing workshops for several years before retiring, and now spends much of his nonpractice time writing poetry and fiction. He published his first novel, Ripples in the Wind, in 2000, under the pen name Bushdoc Sullivan, and he's nearly finished his second.

James Nobles

In 1999, when James Nobles decided he'd had enough, he'd been in solo ob/gyn practice in Louisiana for nearly 20 years. "I was 49 at the time," he recalls. "I had a very successful practice in Baton Rouge, but I also worked incredibly hard. I was chief of OB at one hospital, and on the staff at another 10 miles away. I was always running back and forth between them. And since I was solo, I had no one to cover for me."

Nobles had begun trading stock and bond futures several years before he retired. He found it exciting, but too demanding for part-time attention. "So I decided to sell the practice and go into trading futures full time," he says. "I was putting in 80 hours a week—about the same as when I was an OB. I made good money, but not enough to support my family, since I still had five children in school at the time."

So after two years as a trader, Nobles returned to medicine in October 2001. After a brief stint at a clinic in Alabama, he joined a two-doctor ob/gyn group in McComb, a town in southern Mississippi. While he still puts in a full week, life is easier than it was when he practiced on his own. The town's only hospital is just across the street, and he now shares call with his two colleagues. "I'm very busy here," says Nobles. "I do 30 to 35 deliveries and a dozen surgeries a month. But compared to my former practice, I feel like I'm on vacation."

Now 51, Nobles earns nearly as much as he did as a soloist, but his cost of living is much lower. His home in McComb cost him only one-fourth as much as a comparable house back in Baton Rouge. He still does some trading on the side, and plans to get his license someday as a registered commodities trading adviser. "But I won't retire from medicine again as long as I'm enjoying it," he says. "I've learned my lesson."

Ted Stuart

FP Ted Stuart, then 65, retired as planned in early 2001 after practicing for 37 years in Glendale, AZ, a suburb of Phoenix. He sold his practice to his associate, and spent the next year doing electrical, plumbing, and carpentry repairs around the house, which he found "less satisfying than working with human beings."

Including the proceeds from the sale of his practice, Stuart had a comfortable nest egg of $1.6 million when he retired. That seemed like plenty, especially since he had invested most of it in stock index funds. "Based on a conservative estimate," he says, "I figured I had enough to take out $100,000 a year without touching the principal. But I was wrong. When I finally made a budget for my retirement, I realized it wasn't going to work out the way I'd planned."

When the market began to slide, Stuart simply waited for it to recover. "I was foolish," he admits. Instead of recovering, the market dropped even further, and he ended up losing 37 percent of his holdings. "That's when I realized my best asset was my ability to practice medicine," he says.

Fortunately, Stuart had kept up his license and board certification. He contacted his former associate, and arranged to rejoin the practice last November as a part-time employee. His wife doesn't like the idea, but he insists he'll only put in enough time to net $25,000 a year to supplement his investment income. Asked how long he plans to work this time, Stuart, now 67, replies, "That depends on what happens to the market." As he readily admits, "I'm just doing this for the money."

 

Advice on retirement planning

Determine specific financial targets for how much you'll need, and when you'll need it. Vague, broad goals create no sense of commitment.

"You have to make a budget for retirement early on to plan how much you'll need to live on," says FP Ted Stuart of Glendale, AZ. "Then figure out how much you'll need in savings and investments to produce that much income. That means setting a specific financial goal, and working systematically toward achieving it."

Ob/gyn James Nobles of McComb, MS, tells colleagues: "Don't retire unless you have at least a few million dollars in Treasury bills. Any other kind of investing is too risky for a retirement fund. Some of my doctor friends who had most of their money in stocks lost 75 percent of their savings with the drop in the market over the last two years."

Nobles thinks too many doctors don't know how to budget. "Lots of them spend far more than they earn each year," he says. "My advice is: live within your means, and stay out of debt."

The psychological shift

Retirement planning doesn't mean waiting until your last six months in practice. Experts recommend getting started when you're still in midcareer. And that doesn't apply only to financial planning. "Too many doctors walk away from their practices without a plan for the future," says radiologist Peter Moskowitz, director of the Center for Professional and Personal Renewal in Palo Alto, CA. "Financially they can afford to do it, and they may be happy for a while. But then boredom sets in, and they feel a lack of purpose in their lives."

Early retirement can be particularly difficult for workaholics whose medical practice has been their only source of satisfaction. In such cases, the end of a career may bring an acute sense of psychological, intellectual, and emotional loss. If you've been involved in your family, hobbies, community activities, and other interests over the years, retirement won't be as traumatic.

"Unfortunately," says FP Daniel Sullivan of Chesterfield, MO, "many doctors focus only on medicine, to the exclusion of almost everything else. They tend to socialize only with other doctors, and don't spend much time with their family and friends. By the time they retire, their children are grown and gone, which leaves a big hole in their lives."

While retirement may bring relief from the stress of daily practice, many physician retirees say that one of their biggest problems is boredom. After a long vacation, and a few months of puttering around the house and garden, they find themselves with too much time on their hands. When every day is a day off, the freedom may no longer bring much pleasure.

That's why Jeff Denning, a practice management consultant in La Jolla, CA, recommends that doctors do some careful self-analysis before committing themselves to retirement. "The first thing to do," he says, "is to ask yourself: 'What problem am I trying to solve?' Retirement is for people who are tired of their careers, and who have something they'd rather do with their time. But you'd better nail down just what that something is before cutting your ties to medicine. If you're still getting enjoyment and income from your practice, and you still have the skills and stamina for it, why retire?"

Have a contingency plan

In case retirement doesn't work out, it pays to have a fallback plan for returning to your former practice. For that reason, Michael Brown, a practice management consultant in Indianapolis, suggests that doctors who sell their practice add a buy-back provision to the agreement. If there's a possibility that you might ever return to private practice—with another group or on your own—find out first if your employment contract with your former practice has a restrictive covenant limiting your geographic options.

"A lot of physicians who retire early want to keep their identity as doctors, without having all the administrative stress of running their own practice," says David Scroggins, a practice management consultant with Clayton L. Scroggins Associates in Cincinnati. He suggests a variety of other full- or part-time options that might meet those criteria: working at nursing homes or VA hospitals; covering for former partners; serving as an in-house company doctor; doing disability or workers' compensation evaluations.

To allow for such possibilities, it's important to maintain your medical license, says internist Charles Schiffer of Schenectady, NY. "If you let it lapse, the process to re-apply can be outrageously complicated." Schiffer also recommends keeping up with CME activities and current medical journals, and maintaining contact with former colleagues. "If you decide to return to medicine," he says, "they can alert you of opportunities that occur in your region, and help with recommendations."

 



Berkeley Rice. Retire early?

Medical Economics

May 23, 2003;80:43.