For some, going to the doctor is a once-per-year transactional experience. You wait, get your vitals checked and make sure everything is in order. But perhaps you have a longtime primary care physician who’s been seeing your family for years, or a specialist who helps you manage a chronic condition. Learning they are retiring can be bittersweet — you may be happy for them but worried about what’s next.
Research suggests more patients will have to navigate this process in the coming years. A 2021 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) projects we could have anywhere from 37,800 to 124,000 fewer physicians by 2034 than we do today.
The AAMC collected data before the COVID-19 pandemic, but other research indicates the crisis hasn’t helped. About eight percent of doctors said they shuttered their practices during the pandemic, according to an August 2020 survey of 3,500 doctors by the Physicians Foundation. On a larger level, three in one health care workers are considering leaving their jobs due to burnout, per one survey.
Ultimately, 1.1 percent of physicians who closed their practices in April 2020 did not return, according to a JAMA report. It may seem like a small number, but it’s four times the number of doctors who called it quits in all of 2019 (.33 percent).
Even though this migration is happening in real time, one patient advocate says patients don’t have much to worry about. In fact, your doctor retiring can open up new opportunities for better care.
“When doctors retire, it’s a fresh chance for you to evaluate what you need,” says nurse Teri Dreher, a board-certified patient advocate and owner of North Shore Patient Advocates.
Consider this your guide to navigating doctor retirement.
Why are doctors retiring?
Age. The aforementioned 2021 AAMC study noted more than two of every five active physicians in the US will turn 65 in the next ten years. That’s right around the time people commonly retire in the U.S.
Job dissatisfaction. If you feel like your treatment has become more rushed, you’re not alone. A 2017 survey by the Physicians Foundation found that only 11 percent of patients and 14 percent of physicians felt that they had enough time together.
“Most doctors’ dream is to help people,” says Dr. Benjamin Caplan, the founder and chief medical officer of CED Clinic and CED Foundation. “When we are pushed from one room to the next, we don’t reap the benefits.”
(Below, Caplan notes COVID-19 concerns have likely only exacerbated job dissatisfaction.)
More options. For generations, the path for a doctor was relatively straightforward: Complete medical school and residency, and go into clinical practice. But Dr. Jordan Grumet, an internist in Illinois, says there are several routes doctors can take nowadays that don’t involve patient-to-patient care.
From working in research or development at pharmaceutical companies, to becoming medical malpractice consultants, Grumet says there’s a wide swath of jobs that never existed for doctors before.
How has Covid-19 impacted the number of doctors retiring?
Safety concerns. COVID-19 presented a huge risk for healthcare professionals. The likelihood of getting seriously ill from COVID-19 is higher for people in their 50s and continues to increase with age, according to the CDC.
But a project by Kaiser Health and The Guardian found some disturbing trends: More than 3,600 US healthcare workers died during the first year of the pandemic. More than half of them were under 60. Caplan says pandemic concerns have really contributed to rollover within healthcare.
“Doctors raced to protect the public on the front lines and subjected themselves to working longer hours, and sometimes…there was scarce PPE,” Caplan says. “Doctors are people too with families at home.”
Finances. Though doctor’s offices remained open during pandemic lockdowns, providers were not immune to economic challenges.
An April 2020 survey by the California Medical Association (CMA) reported 87 percent of the state’s doctors were concerned about finances, with 33 percent noting a decrease in revenue. Part of the problem? About one-third of providers noticed a decline in patients, even with the option for telehealth.
“If you were a doctor who didn’t have an economic reason to practice and you were doing it because you loved it and your practice [starts] losing money, it was good reason to get out,” Caplan says.
Patient trust. A 2021 Harvard survey of Americans showed that 52 percent trust the CDC, and only 37 percent trust the National Institute of Health. Notably, 67 percent of respondents said they trusted their doctors. But Caplan says disagreements over public health guidance, from mask-wearing to vaccines, has exhausted doctors.
“Burnout has been a huge part of doctors being like, ‘This is too much. People don’t believe me anymore. Then I’m going to the hospital and dealing with an onslaught of people who are dying, and I can’t do anything about it,’” Caplan adds.
What’s the best way to choose a new doctor?
Insurance. Insurance companies can provide a list of in-network providers. Whether or not the person or practice is the best fit requires more homework, she says.
Referrals. Friends, family and colleagues may be able to recommend a provider who meets your needs.
“Ask people [what providers] have treated them well, and who gets them in as soon as they need to be seen,” Dr. Grumet says.
Dreher suggests tapping into apps like NextDoor or local Facebook groups. Alternatively, one of your best resources for finding a new provider may be tapping into your current one.
“If your doctor is leaving and you have some lead time, ask your doctor, ‘Who practices like you? Who would you send your own family members to?’” Dr. Grumet suggests.
Dr. Grumet says that the process is informal from there. The doctor will give you names and contact information for new doctors. You can call to set up a consultation or initial appointment.
Interview providers. Patients don’t have to commit to a new doctor right away. Dreher suggests meeting the doctor in person first.
“When you meet with a doctor face-to-face, you get a sense for how kind they are and how they care for people and their values,” she says.
Dr. Grumet suggests asking questions, such as:
- How do you feel about taking care of my underlying condition?
- Do you do hospital care, and which hospitals are you affiliated with?
- If I’m in the hospital, would you come to see me?
- How long does it typically take to get an appointment?
- If you are not available, are there other doctors in the practice who can see me quickly?
- How do you handle off-hour emergencies?
- How can I contact you if I have a question in between appointments?
Dreher also suggests bringing up any complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) you may be involved in, like going to a chiropractor. Dr. Grumet explains patients don’t typically need a doctor referral to see a CAM specialist, but having someone who understands the treatment can give patients peace of mind.
How can you request records from a doctor that’s retiring?
Understand costs. HIPAA states you must be granted access to your medical record. Though you own your medical records, some doctors may charge “reasonable fees” for copying them and getting them to you. This definition varies by state. Your state health department can provide information on maximum allowable costs. Caplan says previous providers will often turn the records over to a new provider free of charge.
Sign a release and transfer. Once you decide how you want your records sent to the physician, the process is straightforward, Dr. Grumet says. You’ll usually sign a release indicating you’d like your records transferred. Check in with your doctor’s office for more information.