An increasing number of physicians are taking time out to care for family members, raise their kids and otherwise pursue a better work-life balance. Returning to work after such a hiatus poses a particular problem in the medical sphere – even if you have planned ahead, retained your medical license and continued with professional development courses, it can be difficult. So, what can you do to ease the transition back to work?
There are many reasons why physicians take career breaks. Those reasons can include, as they do for other professionals, home life circumstances such as family leave, personal health or caring for a family member full-time.
Physicians may also take a break from practice for reasons unique to the medical profession; for example, to pursue a research post, undertake charitable work overseas or take an approved leave of absence in support of a national or international activity or organization.
The problem of burn-out, while not unique to physicians, does create another reason for physicians to step away from medicine. A 2016 survey for The Physicians Foundation's Survey of America's Physicians found 49 percent of respondents said they often or always experience feelings of burnout.
Whatever the circumstances that led to the career break, physicians can face tough challenges re-entering the profession.
Part of the reason physicians face such challenges when reentering the profession is because of the lack of national standards or guidance for returning physicians. The AMA has worked with the Federation of State Medical Boards and the American Academy of Pediatrics to promote consensus and drive national standards and processes around physicians returning to work after a career break.
However, the picture remains very patchy. The AMA has found that only 51% of state medical boards have a policy on physician re-entry. Of those that do, different states have different definitions of what constitutes a “career break”. And reentry requirements differ widely from state to state.
Be prepared for a lot of paperwork
At a minimum, it is likely you will need to provide letters of recommendation, complete numerous forms and be prepared to pay various registration fees. Depending on where you live, you will probably also need to be prepared to take assessment tests and/or undergo a retraining program or proctorship.
If you can, plan ahead
If possible, physicians contemplating a career break should make themselves aware of reentry regulations in their state (or state of likely reentry to the profession) before taking a break. This means forethought when initially making the break, so that during your break you can continue with activities that will help you reenter the profession when you are ready to do so. This can involve several hundred dollars per year and time spent taking Continuing Medical Education (CME) courses to keep your license current. While this might not be possible for physicians taking unexpected breaks or working abroad, for those taking a career break to care for relatives or raise children, it may be possible to maintain licensure and keep up to date with continuing professional education. However, even then, the path isn’t always as straight-forward as, perhaps, it ought to be.
Consider paying for a return to work program
Not only do you need to demonstrate your competence to the medical board and any potential employers, you need to satisfy yourself that you are ready to return.
Taking advantage of formal reentry programs can make the transition back to practice much smoother – both practically and emotionally. However, these programs also require significant forward planning. Programs typically last 6 months or more and can cost upwards of $5k - $10k.
There are a growing number of opportunities available around the country to help physicians make the transition. The AMA-backed Physician Reentry to the Workplace Project
offers useful guidance if you want to take this route back to practice.
As well as giving you much-needed confidence, and potentially satisfying your local medical board, adding such a program to your CV can help to alleviate any concerns potential employers might have – especially those focused on patient safety – when considering interviewing a physician who is returning to work after a significant break.
Finding the right role
While taking a career break doesn’t have to mean the end of your medical career, it is, nonetheless, important to recognize that things aren’t going to pick up where they left off.
Be realistic when looking at positions. While there is no harm applying for positions at the same seniority as you had at the beginning of your break, you should also consider – and be prepared to accept – a more junior role. What’s more, you should be prepared that any roles you are offered may be contingent upon you undertaking a retraining program, perhaps at your own cost.
Continuing to work in some form of part-time practice is the best way to avoid many of the headaches associated with reentry. A part-time position is also a great way to ease yourself back into work gradually. Working part-time has many advantages, giving you the time to combine part-time work with study and other programs required to refresh your skills and update knowledge.
Even if part-time work isn’t your long-term goal, consider applying for part-time positions as a way to reenter practice. It opens up more opportunities for you and it’s worth remembering that part-time positions can often become full-time positions.
Your CV: Focus on the positives
When it comes to applying for a suitable role, keep your time out of the profession to a single line on your CV. You need to be honest about time spent out of practice, but your CV isn’t the place for protracted explanations. One line with the dates and a concise description is enough.
Use your cover letter – or your interview – to expand on your reasons for the break and, most importantly, your desire to return to practice.
The interview: prepare to deal with objections
In an article in the New York Times, Pauline W. Chen, M.D. talks about a deep-seated reluctance in the profession to admit to taking career breaks. Chen suggests that, despite record numbers of doctors choosing to take time off, there is still a stigma in medicine around taking career breaks. It is therefore important to prepare how you are going to talk about and answer questions about the time you have spent out of the profession.
The best way to challenge and overcome any possible stigma is to be open about your reasons for choosing to take the career break and the particular challenges you were facing. You don’t need to give excessive detail about time spent outside the profession, unless it is pertinent to your professional skills, so if you find the conversation veering in this direction refocus the discussion onto your reasons for wishing reenter the profession and your qualifications for doing so.
The best way to counter objections is to demonstrate your professional skills and experience and to genuinely express your drive and desire to reenter medicine.
It can be difficult to reestablish your career after a significant break. A lot will depend upon your personal circumstances and where you live, but resources are available to help you. For further information, check out the AMA and the Physician Reentry to the Workplace Project resources as a starting point.
Whatever your personal circumstances, however, one thing is clear: patience and determination are going to be your two greatest assets as a physician seeking to return to practice.
What can you do to ease the transition back to work?