“B

urned out cardiac surgeon seeks opportunities or empathy,” one message reads. “I feel stuck,” another confides. A third says simply, “I don’t want to be a doctor anymore!”

The posts come in from across the globe, each generating its own thread of commiseration and advice. “I just wanted to reach out and let you know I feel your pain,” a doctor-turned-MBA replies to one surgeon. “Your story is so similar to mine,” a respondent marvels to a fellow trainee. “Before you quit, think about what motivated you in the first place, and what changed,” cautions an emergency physician to an early-career doctor.

This networking site, and others like it, is where doctors come to discuss the verboten: leaving the medical profession. There are posts from medical school students questioning their career path, and from trainees unable to find a full-time job. And predominantly there are posts by physicians who, after years in the field, are desperate, at the end of their rope, looking for a way out.

Some of them are suffering from what doctors know simply by the shorthand of burnout — loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment. Burnout is on the rise among doctors: One study found that over half of all US physicians are experiencing it, for reasons such as long work hours and an increasing burden of bureaucratic tasks. With no nationally available, peer-reviewed data on physician turnover, it’s not clear precisely how many doctors leave because of burnout.

But more than most, doctors may find a career change daunting. There’s the time invested — four years of medical school and as many as nine more years of specialty training — and perhaps a lucrative salary that’s hard to leave behind. Doctors’ specialized skills may seem less obviously transferrable to another field. And the perceived virtuousness of a career in medicine may make some feel guilty to consider leaving.

So they come to Drop Out Club to air their worries, seek solace from those who’ve made the leap — and just feel less alone. The site’s forum is where they ask for and offer advice; there’s also a job board where employers post positions, and members can converse privately in individual messaging. Among its 37,000 members, about half are doctors, said Heather Clisby, a company spokesperson.

Two recently established Facebook groups aim to meet a similar need. Since their founding last year, Physician Nonclinical Career Hunters and PMG Physicians and Non-Clinical Careers have amassed nearly 3,000 members combined. (The latter group is visible only to those who are invited by current members.)

“The frustration with medicine is fueling our growth,” said Dr. Laura Fijolek McKain, the founder of Physician Nonclinical Career Hunters. “Doctors are frustrated with how much time they’re spending on paperwork and other activities that have little to do with patient care.”

And on the web they can find what is often hard to come by in daily life: a ready-made community of people grappling with the same questions.

Dr. Maryam Shapland
On average, one new physician per week emails Shapland for advice after finding her contact information through Drop Out Club.

Finding solidarity online

Dr. Maryam Shapland initially loved her job as an emergency physician. It was busy, exciting, and important. But after a few years, the work felt less exciting and more stressful. She reduced her work hours, but still felt worn out all the time. Then, seven years into her practice, one of her patients sued her.

Devastated, she decided to start searching for a new career.

At first, she felt guilty for wanting to leave. “People thought I made good money, helped people, and had a nice life,” she said. “All the checkboxes were marked off, so what did I have to complain about?”

Then she found Drop Out Club. She quickly became a “lurker” on the member forum, reading messages posted by others. “Reading all these stories of people trying to leave made me realize I wasn’t crazy for being unhappy in this career I had worked so hard for,” she said.

Shapland hired a career coach, started actively using LinkedIn, and in 2015 was hired as a medical director at a life insurance company. “Leaving medicine felt like giving up a big part of my identity,” she said. “But I’m proud of what I do now. Most importantly, I’m happy and thriving.”

And now that’s a message she’s hoping to transmit to others in her shoes. In retrospect, Shapland said, Drop Out Club suffered from too many mentees and not enough mentors. Once she made it to the other side, she decided to regularly provide career advice — and her email address — on the forum. Since her first post in 2015, she said she gets approximately one new person a week emailing her to seek advice on leaving medicine.

Dr. Maryam Shapland
Shapland displays a picture of herself in the Philippines on a medical mission trip in December 2013, back when she worked as an emergency physician.

Grappling with leaving

One of those was Dr. Ashwini Zenooz, a radiologist who had practiced for over 10 years. Surrounded by colleagues who seemingly loved their jobs, Zenooz felt that she couldn’t discuss wanting to leave medicine with them. Finding Drop Out Club “was a way to extend my network to people closer to my needs,” she said. Browsing the forum, Zenooz saw Shapland’s email address and sent her a note — which became an extended email conversation, and, eventually, an hourlong phone call one afternoon. Zenooz ultimately took a job in health policy.

Many of the inquiries Shapland receives are related to financial concerns. Medical education can leave doctors with up to a half million dollars of debt, making many feel tied to a high-paying job. Others struggle with the “golden handcuffs” of medicine, unable to leave lifestyles supported by comfortable incomes.

Fear of the unknown can also be daunting, especially to those who have spent their entire careers in medicine. “Leaving behind the familiar and going into the unknown was scary at first. I had been doing this job for decades, and there was a certain comfort level with that,” says Dr. Joshua Schechtel, a hospitalist who left clinical practice this year.

Dr. K.K., an oncologist who requested anonymity in case she returns to clinical practice in the future, found Drop Out Club while trying to make sense of the various nonclinical career options. She posted questions and read stories of members’ career paths out of medicine. “I saw proof that a lot of people who left medicine found other jobs and were happy,” she said. “It made me realize that I, too, could find a way out.” She recently left clinical practice and now works as a consultant for health insurance companies. “Leaving my patients and their families was very hard,” she said — but “my new role allows for a much healthier work-life balance.”

Still, not everyone finds meaningful support through online communities.

Some simply want more hands-on support than a peer-to-peer site can provide. Dr. Mary Schultheis, a colorectal surgeon, joined Drop Out Club after 10 years in private practice. “The hardest part of leaving was accepting that it didn’t mean I was a failure,” she said. “Drop Out Club couldn’t help me come to terms with this, but working with a career coach did.” She left clinical practice this year and now balances part-time consulting and health insurance industry roles.

Others find there aren’t enough people to provide advice. “There were a lot of people who piled on to commiserate, but it was hard to find actionable advice on Drop Out Club,” said a dermatologist in California. She reverted to networking the “old-fashioned way, meeting people locally and building a Rolodex,” which ultimately led to her current mix of part-time consulting and part-time medicine.

Shapland agrees that the site — and the medical field more generally — needs doctors who have left clinical practice to speak up and share their unconventional career paths. They need to make themselves available to help as she did, she said. “Just being a living, breathing example of someone who made it to the other side and will answer a couple questions can help someone take that leap of faith.” She’s proof of it.

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  • I am burnt out. Not excited to go to work anymore.

    Please help m? It’s dark. Walls closing in. Don’t know how else make the Leap of faith change champ change

  • As a PCP, I want to know where I can find part time opportunities. Women who become Doctors when single will despise working full-time when they become Mothers. Do something else in life that will not exhaust you and make you cynical. Not to mention the overall corruption in Healthcare nowdays is unbelievable.

  • I hurt my back by lifting a patient. No insurance and I did’t file a complaint at the hospital because I thought it would go away and now they say it has been too long. I tried chiropractic, Tens, massage, water therapy, yoga, doing nothing, back supports, new bed, elevator in house…nothing worked, after 8 years I couldn’t take it any more it was getting worse with electric shocks, I finally went to another doctor an anesthesiologist and he said I had to have surgery, at least a spinal steroid injection before I could get have any pain medication. Well I got a CSF leak and he refused to believe it so got an MRI, he said it was normal…I was desperate and let him do 4 more procedures and then I went blind. My sight came back after about 30 mins but talk about a coming to Jesus moment..so I went to a neurosurgeion the next day and he said I need immediate surgery for a Chiari caused by the 8 month long CSF leak…they sawed out my skull and my 1st vertebra and now I have chronic ringing in my ears a 24/7 headache and chronic left mastoiditis…but even through all of that, I am not a cry baby and I still needed to work to pay bills etc…They put me on hydrocodone and Fentanyl patch and then I took myself off the patch…but now after 13 years of ER practice with no lawsuits or sanctions, the Medical Board has decided I can not work due to being impaired. I am not impaired. I know what impaired is…that was back in my college days after 2 shots of tequila…I hate that everything can be taken away, just like that by someone else. I still owe medical school loans. I only borrowed $90,000 from our wonderful government and I have been paying $1500 a month for over 13 years and I still own $190,000.00. All that medical school and residency and work for nothing. With today’s stigma I am seen as a drug addict, but nothing else works. I tried it all. Even if they decide I am injured enough and deserve a little pain relief, they will then say I am physical impaired due to the neurological/brain surgery. They are alleging both..its a no win situation. We as physicians are not allowed to get hurt. Why no insurance. ER work is mostly locums work and it is not offered and Obamacare wiped out my savings with their high monthly and high deductibles and then I had to pay cash for 4 blood patches that didn’t work. I can’t believe “the medical board” has forgotten I am also a patient. I need to find a job where I can still make a living and pay these bills.

  • I hate working. I used to love it. I used to love science and all of medicine. But night shifts, cruel comments, bad leadership, unfair schedules, sexism, nasty nurses, lack of respect, EMR, paper work etc has killed my love for medicine. I want to take a sebatical. But worry I’ll be punished for it. I can’t continue. I hate it and my physical and emotional life are a wreck from it. How can I do that?

    • Gail,

      Have you looked at Direct Primary Care? Not sure what your field is but I left 20+ years in fee for service private practice two years to set up my DPC practice. I have just under 600 patients, avg monthly fee per patient is just under $60, I see 6-7 patients per day, interact via text/email/phone with maybe ten others quickly, have 30-60 minute appointments, have time to study (Up to Date), etc.

  • Hello, I am a fresh mbbs graduate and currently working as a medical officer in a hospital, and I don’t like my life anymore, I often consider leaving my job and do something less stressful, what are my opportunities, please help me.

  • Liked comments about leaving the rat race and clinical care in general; how do you figure out what to do? That to me is the hard part; got course in Seak to help; non clinical jobs seem not that easy to figure what is good fit; thanks for any input;

  • The Last Straw for ME is the inane MOC Exam. The vast majority of MDs feel it has ZERO relevance for any of us!! We need a one-week work stoppage, to drive that point home.

  • I am completely disgusted with the private practice that I am working at and I feel I need to leave. My love if medicine has changed and I feel exhausted physically and emotionally. I usually connect so well with the patients but I feel so disconnected that I don’t even recognize myself. I need a change! Please help me,

    • You need time out to think. You have compelling reasons to stop. A sabbatical or unpaid leave or a vacation or whatever doesn’t need to be the end of your career. I took a sabbatical and did a short research project that left me 10 months to think. It was the best thing I did. Apart from leaving.

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