Physician Retirement Age: When Is The Right Time To Retire?

January 10th, 2022
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The decision to retire is a difficult one for anyone, including physicians.

However, with everyone’s investment accounts so flush with money because of the bull market, a lot of physicians younger than the traditional retirement age of 65 have enough money to retire early. Some have chosen to do so; others have chosen to continue to work even though they are financially ready for retirement.

So what are the factors that determine when a physician retires?

When Do Physicians Retire?

Before we look into the reasons why people choose to retire, let’s look at the data to see when physicians actually retire.

According to a study from the AAFP, the average physician retired at 67 in 1995, compared to age 70 in 1980, and a more recent study from 2016 of family physicians showed the average retirement age from clinical medicine to be 64.9 years.

A survey by 3DHealthInc conducted in 2016 found that the average physician planned to retire at age 66, with over 80% of respondents saying they would retire between age 60 and 70. So while the early retirement movement is growing, it certainly hasn’t gained widespread adoption among physicians.

According to a systematic review of physician retirement planning papers, the average expected retirement age was lower than the average actual retirement age among physicians. Some physicians are not able to pull the trigger on retirement as early as they had planned.

Reasons For Retirement

Age

One reason to retire is simply reaching a certain age. For some, age 65 is a magic number. For others, it might be 62, or 67, or 70.

Some physicians will choose to retire even if they haven’t fully reached their retirement number if they can afford to have a lower retirement lifestyle. After all, time is a non-renewable resource.

Net Worth

Other physicians have a target retirement number in mind. You might start with a target retirement lifestyle, and then use the 4% rule to work backwards and calculate how much money you’ll need in retirement to live that lifestyle. If it takes longer than expected to reach that number, then people might choose to work longer.

If the stock market does really well, as it has over the past 8 years, some physicians may choose to retire earlier than age 65. Other physicians may even choose to retire very early, including in their 40s.

On the other end of the spectrum, if the stock market takes a big tumble right before their planned retirement dates, many physicians will delay their retirement, working to rebuild their nest eggs while the stock market recovers. Many physicians did just that in 2007-2009 when the S&P 500 fell more than 50% from its peak.

Many radiologists delayed retirement after the stock market crashed in 2009.

Some participants on Student Doctor Network attribute the delayed retirement in radiologists as a contributor to the significant tightening of the resident job market in the early 2010s. This backlog caused almost every radiology resident to do one (or more) fellowships to get a job.

Since then, the radiology job market has improved — possibly because the stock market has risen and allowed more radiologists to finally reach their retirement numbers and quit.

Ability/Health

Medicine is hard and is constantly changing. Physicians are expected to keep up with the latest literature. New drugs, treatments, and technologies are introduced every year. If physicians do not keep up with the changes in medicine, their abilities will decline.

For some physicians, their health declines over the years. Surgeons might find it difficult to do long surgeries as they get older. Even physicians who work in an outpatient setting may eventually slow down to a point where they cannot continue to work.

Some physicians are diagnosed with an acute or chronic illness that might impair their ability to work. This may require them to leave the workplace earlier than they expected. If they become disabled, hopefully they will have purchased disability insurance when they were young and healthy.

Remember that all of the assumptions with the 4% rule were designed with a 30-year retirement in mind. If you are diagnosed with a life-limiting illness that might make your retirement significantly shorter than 30 years, then you won’t need 25x annual expenses to make it through your abbreviated retirement.

Don’t Be Like The Professional Athlete When It Comes To Retirement

Whatever your reason(s) to retire, the goal is to do it on your own terms.

Athletes are notorious for staying in the game for too long. They always think they still have it, even though their skills have noticeably declined. They often are kicked out of the league because of poor performance, not because they didn’t want to play anymore.

Financial Independence Gives You The Option To Retire On Your Terms

When you achieve financial independence, you get to decide when you retire. Unless you get hit with a big bear market right before your planned retirement date, you can choose to retire when you want, and don’t have to work longer than you have to. By becoming financially independent earlier in life, you don’t have to face a situation where your skills/health decline to a point where you are kicked out of the profession like a professional athlete.

Ride off into the sunset of retirement on your terms.

Every athlete wants to ride off into the sunset, at the peak of their abilities and having no regrets about their career. Achieving early financial independence can enable you to do that with your career.

What do you think? When do you plan to retire? Will it be based on your age, reaching a target retirement number, or a combination of both?

Poll: At what age do you plan to retire?

21 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for the post on an important topic. It is interesting that most physicians retire around the “traditional age.” That is probably a little later than the average American. That makes sense since careers start later, can be more enjoyable, and are less physically demanding than many other jobs out there.
    I’m not sure what age to click on your survey. When I started out (nearly 20 years ago) I was aiming for FIRE. After reaching FI, I just cut out the parts of my work that I didn’t like and added more of the stuff I liked and was good at. Then I went part-time. I currently don’t see a reason to stop. If I do, it won’t be based on a specific chronological age.

  2. I am slowly retiring. From 45-55 I slowed down to 3.5 days per week in OB/GYN. I had planned to retire at 55. 2008 happened when was 51. I decided to work to 60. At 56 I hit “my number” so I quit OB and work 3 days per week doing GYN. I am now 60.5 but I am still working. I am uncertain about health care premiums. I will retire when there is clarity and affordability in the individual market or at 65 (with Medicare.).

  3. This was a great post. I remember one of my mentors talking about retiring just before the 2008 market crash. He is still around, but talking about it again. Hopefully, it is not a leading indicator.
    Achieving financial independence is a game changer because it allows you to play the game on your own terms as you suggest. Finding a blend of work and other outside interests seems key and FI gives you the flexibility to play around a bit. I’ll likely start a pressure support “wean” for the “work-ventilator” in my early 50s when my kids hit University.
    -LD

  4. I plan to semi-retire in my mid to late fifties and do part-time or locums radiology. I remember the time around the Great Recession, the rads job market was terrible. Residents couldn’t find decent jobs- the only ones were in the boonies or middle of the night telerad gigs. It turned off a generation of residents to rads. There were older rads in my group who stayed on much too long. They were missing too many findings, didn’t learn MRI, weren’t comfortable reading this or that. I don’t plan to stay that long. The important thing is to not retire to a life of nothing. You have to plan ahead and retire to something else. Maybe another career or volunteer work.

  5. Excellent post, as always.

    The radiology job drought of 2010 or so was more complicated than the stock market drop of 2008-9. If that were the sole cause, more specialties would have been similarly affected. There was the overhang of a ridiculous growth of imaging volume in the 2000’s, with subsequent expansion and hiring and a series of cuts in reimbursement from the mid 00’s to early 10’s, both of which provided headwinds to hiring new rads. There were also some IR-specific issues, which further destabilized the job market.

    At any rate, while the 2008-9 stock market tumble contributed to the sharp downturn in the radiology job market, there were some unique, radiology-specific issues that also played a part, maybe even the larger part in this turnaround.

  6. I’m practicing in a private setting and slowly trying to wean down my time. I just turned 47 and have been basically trying to leave completely around the same time my daughter goes to college (she’s finishing 7th grade). So in my head I had envisioned age 55 as a good goal. However the way medicine has been trending I really want to accelerate that process. Currently with cuts in reimbursement for imaging studies I am doing a significant amount more volume to maintain prior years wages. I’m afraid the trend will only continue.

    One big thing for giving me sanity is I have now started paying a semi retired doc to cover my work 1 day a week. A 4 day work week now seems much more sustainable and there’s hope to even cut it down to 3 which would be ideal.

    I think health care costs and then possible educational expenses for my daughter are the two things that make me feel like I have to stay a bit longer just to build a better buffer

  7. I am a surgeon and am 68 years old. I was working full time doing major surgery. I had an illness requiring surgery and developed multiple complications. I am fortunately recovering. However, being home full time is just too boring. I plan to return to work soon. There is no magic age or plan. However, be sure retirement is appropriate for you.

  8. Mr. Plastic Picker is an MD too, and we plan to retire at 58. For the next decade we are going to work on making sure we have an identity outside of medicine. I think this is why so many don’t retire. They have no idea what to do with themselves! My dream is to volunteer time maybe for the Indian Health Service. I’ve started writing more and doing environmental advocacy work.

  9. My question is simply: How long are you allowed to practice medicine in the EU countries?At which age do you loose your licence?For some colleagues,it is convenient to see a patient ( often a family member) and to write a prescription , I am not talking about having a full job in the public heath care,but simply: at which age are you not allowed to practice any more ?

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