“Burned 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 a 30 yr Nurse Practitioner and about to retire and cannot be happier to leave behind all of the stress that posters express. Healthcare was far easier 30 yrs ago before many of you were born. we saw 20-30 patients a day but didn’t have EMRs, didn’t code our work, just saw patients. we all were a lot happier. i’m just happy I survived it all, saved a lot of money and can check out relatively early (61). I don’t even know what to say to young persons wanting to go into nursing or medicine except strongly reconsider and ask A LOT of questions of those in the professions. adios!

  • The healthcare profession of this era, is one that is not a choice that I would want. As a Psychotherapist, with several ancillary degrees, I have not been in my private practice for a while now. My reason for this decision was intitially because I returned to my family home, here in New England. My two awesome parents were in need of full time support, in order for them to remain in their own home that they shared with my youngest sister, who worked full time and beyond; my next younger sister also worked so many hours, with her profession, and her husband who also was employed by the same company since he was just out of university.

    When our parents both declined significantly, and required full time healthcare for their respective illnesses, the dreaded decision was required for us to have them close to home at a healthcare facility where we were close enough to be with them often. They have recently passed on, and my sisters are are still employed by their respective employers, with my middle sibling and her now retired husband, selling their home, in MA, and permanently moving to their other home in a different state far away from MA. My sister attempted to retire, and her company kept raising her salary and extraordinarily amazing benefits, so she is still going through the overworked professional experience with her employment. She has definitely decided to not continue for one more year, and is looking forward to her own decision to become a volunteer for an awesome experience for which she has wanted for many years. My youngest sister is in a different situation and will continue with her professional employment for a long time still; she has a compassionate group of employers who have been invaluable supporters whilst she had our beloved parents living with her; and when the saddest day of our lives when we had no choice left to have them remain in their home with VPN’S who were coming to their home for the last months of their living in their own home. The three of us contributed to their respective needs financially that went beyond their own fiscal allocation of their personal wealth. I would do it again and forever, to have the honor of being with them, for the years that I had. Living across the entire nation for our entire lives, my husband and I were both expected to move to the eight different states, for his professional employment with several European companies that were incorporated in the USA, and became some of the most successful companies who had extraordinary knowledge of their corporations. This was the choice that we lived with for our entire lives. And we were elated when we were allowed to live wherever we wanted, as my husband’s current employment situation permits him to do so.

    I am now somewhat disinclined to continue with my private practice as a Psychotherapist. I love my profession, and I am a gifted individual who has always been devoted to my professional life as a therapist for my years, in the profession that I feel was called to do; my own experiences have been a profound experience, because of the different experiences from that of a physician’s life. I attended a medical school for my graduate school, and continued to be in the professional courses that were offered at the same medical school, with other significant two year post graduate programs that included the requirements for all non medical students who were mandated to also be enrolled in courses for non medical students too. I almost decided to enter the medical school to obtain my psychiatric medical degree, until a close friend who has been a supportive friend for many years and is a physician of some reknown, who warned me about the changes that were expected from the physicians who were once in a private practice and happy to with their choices.

    Then the whole system became an extremely different labyrinth of so many added, and unwanted experiences that were necessary for the physicians to remain in their professions because of the significant reason for their being unable to continue to be a physician, to their forced to adhere to the current era of medical healthcare demands for which we are all suffering from the negative consequences of the new and most egregious experiences for medical professionals in this country that has also created the travesty that exists for our healthcare providers. I have often been treating my couple of physicians myself as a therapist and me as their patient too. I am always trying to find a physician who first and foremost take care of themselves first, and then their patients who need them.

    As an advocate for this situation, where my healthcare professionals are truly enlightened enough to recognize that they must first take excellent care of themselves and their family, are the only physicians who I choose to be my personal physicians for myself and my husband.

    This is the way that I think that all physicians have to do together and immediately. There are other ways to practice medicine and still have a quality of life too. Not easy to be sure, yet is an option that I am finally starting to see in the medical profession. I am unaware of the nation wide requirements for the medical profession, yet I have been experiencing a significant change of the ways that the demands that physicians are required to be able to treat patients with the unbelievable intrusive behaviors of the insurance companies; pharma constraints; prescription medications being dictated by the physicians’ own professional organizations, and the most egregious consequences of the federal government’s failure of their unwanted insinuating of the government into the treatment rooms of qualified physicians and their patients is not going to be tolerated by physicians and patients for much longer.

    I am the optimistic individual who wants to be a valid partner for the advocacy of our returning to the experience of the doctor-patient treatment of a private healthcare community where the physicians and their patients are experiencing the healthcare between themselves only. It will not be an easy battle, but it will be restored to what it once was, when we all together are amongst those of us who will succeed to have the insurance industry; the pharma organizations; and most especially the federal government’s failure to respect the rights of the physicians and their patients to take care of themselves without any other selfish, greedy, self serving organizations that, in my observations are all a significant type of what is generally known as “a Ponzi scheme” and has been replaced by the ethics and integrity of our professions, and overtaken our nation’s healthcare system in such a disrespectful, disruptive, and especially destructive manner that is making the healthcare professionals as sick as their patients, but with far worse negative consequences for our nation’s healthcare professionals who have lost their own rights as professionals to practice medicine. No more healthcare insurance forms that restrict the physicians from doing their own professions, which they have taken an oath to provide their patients with the quality of care that they have earned the right to practice, as they alone with their patients decide what is right for them all.

    I end with my own first way to try to make this happen again and leave the several different organizations outside of the treatment rooms for all physicians: it begins at the polling centers around this country, and we must all vote for only the candidates who are truly intent on getting the organizations that have no experience nor rights to decide for the medical professional who and how they are to treat their own patients who don’t want to have any other organizations to dictate to their physicians how to practice medicine for themselves and their patients.
    Please consider this appeal and the approach to restoring our lives in the healthcare system for all physicians and their patients who have the right to be their own choice of how their mutual experiences together are solidly their own choices. Take care of yourselves first, and then we will all benefit from how we care for ourselves before we care for our patients. The final journey forward is to remove the entire rest of the “agency’s” our of our treatment rooms forever!

  • There is zero work-life balance working in medicine. You are constantly working. ALL. THE. TIME. You don’t take your money or job title with you to the grave. All that time simply vanishes and once your youth is gone, it’s gone forever. Money means nothing when you are 50+ with all kinds of health issues, never even mind family problems because you were never around to either have a partner or kids or raise them properly.

    • Hey Alex. Completely understand your post and 100% agree with you. I just resigned from a family medicine practice I have been doing for 22 years. You are 100% correct also about the health issue. I had a very serious G.I. bleed seven months ago and almost died. It made me think VERY HARD about what was I doing working/ running/sacrificing for a career and even most patients who couldn’t care less about me or my family or my health. I decided to leave for greener pastures and I have felt FREE for the first time in the last 22 years! I wish you all the very best for your happy and FREE future!

    • Hi Peter. I am in orthopedics. This post is to give an outsider a somewhat of an insider’s perspective. It is not a cry-me-a-river, boo-hoo post. People coming into medicine at this level should understand the tradeoffs and not be doe-eyed. In all reality, no work in this world that pays a decent living wage and beyond is easy and nearly all jobs have a skewed work to life ratio but at the level and precision that we are expected to perform, the pay and perks do not offset the time and moments given up, never even mind of having a private practice. A good number of my colleagues have moved into healthcare admin. or similar horizontal shifts within the industry to avoid dealing with the headaches and overall stress of practicing medicine. I’d say we practice our actual skills we studied and trained for 20% to 30%, on average, in a given day at work. A significant amount of time is spent dealing with insurance claims, managing our practice, and other admin work.

    • Thanks Ted. Ironically, healthcare practitioners who treat ailments are the very ones who actually end up with them! This is largely due to a degree of the demands and lifestyle (think: random work hours, stress from a large number of angles) placed upon them. This is not just doctors. I see it across the board within the industry. Personal health is incredibly important, especially as we age. It seriously affects our quality of life, both mentally and physically. It is possible to find a workable work to life ratio that incorporates good citizenship with our labor services for the populace as well personal time. When this balance, which is different for everyone but does exist at some level for us all, is thrown off, it shows in our actions and thoughts. You can’t have it all. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • Hi,
    Thanks for sharing such a interesting blog about Drop Out Club. I read your complete blog and you explain each and every point very well. Keep Posting that type of wonderful blog.

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