I began leaning toward a nonclinical career while I was still in medical school. While I’ve always spent a portion of my time doing clinical work, the bulk of my responsibilities have been nonclinical, mainly comprised of utilization management and medical writing.
My pursuit of a nonclinical career began with hesitation
While I had an overall feeling that a nonclinical role would suit me better than a traditional clinical job, I had a lot of uncertainty and even guilt as I made the decision to pursue nonclinical work.
The uncertainty stemmed from being surrounded by clinicians during training and the fact that we simply aren’t taught about the many alternative career options available to us.
Guilt arose from the misconception that physicians have an obligation to treat patients and that they are wasting resources by becoming a doctor if they aren’t going to practice medicine in the traditional sense.
Despite my trepidation, I felt confident enough to take a largely administrative role straight out of residency but did spend a good deal of time second-guessing the path I was pursuing. As it turns out, a nonclinical career has been perfect for my interests, my strengths, and my professional goals.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised. The rest of this article delves into several reasons why. My hope is that any doctors considering a transition to a nonclinical job will find that reading these reasons alleviates some doubt or guilt that can accompany a career change to nonclinical work.
I’m advancing the fields of medicine and healthcare
Physicians who treat patients face to face certainly use their own experience to guide the care they deliver. However, evidence-based medicine arises from systematic research and clinical studies.
New treatments and medications are born through intensive lab work and trials. Laws and regulation intended to improve health care delivery and the health of citizens are the results of extensive political action. Clinically practicing physicians can play a role in these, but their role is usually limited.
Advances in medicine and health care, therefore, rely on others. These “others” are often people without any clinical background and sometimes even without much medical knowledge. Involvement by medical doctors, then, is hugely important for making sure a physician perspective influences political decisions, study design, drug approvals, and health technology advances.
I’m helping people who are suffering from disease
Writing a prescription or performing a procedure are not the only ways to improve someone’s health or decrease their disease burden.
As one example, in my work with managed care organizations, I’ve been involved in developing clinical coverage policies. These are the policies that spell out what services a person’s health plan will cover versus what is considered “experimental” or has not been shown to be effective. This entails reviewing and interpreting medical literature to ensure the policies align with clinical evidence.
While I don’t spend the majority of my days directly treating the patients who are suffering from the same diseases addressed in these policies, the results of my work are helping to ensure that they receive evidence-based, appropriate healthcare service coverage.
I’m assisting people in living healthier lives
One of my main frustrations with clinical medicine is that there often isn’t enough time to discuss healthy lifestyle changes or behavioral modifications with patients — even in the primary care setting.
To make matters worse, sometimes patients don’t want to hear about lifestyle changes and behavioral modifications.
To change behavior and assist people in living healthy lives, often broader solutions are needed. These evolve from public health programs, legislation, or the involvement of large, influential organizations to make a cultural shift.
This type of change doesn’t take place with one-off office visits. It requires health care professionals being involved with the organizations that can make these changes. It requires nonclinical work.
I’m closer to financial independence
Whether a nonclinical job helps you achieve financial independence depends a lot on your unique situation. Most importantly, this is influenced by your specialty (which affects how much you earn in clinical work) and what it is you’d be doing in a nonclinical job (there is a wide range of salaries for nonclinical jobs).
For me, income for a full-time nonclinical job with a managed care company is on par with what I could make practicing clinically in my specialty.
The main driver toward financial independence for me comes from the increased time and motivation to earn additional income through side hustles.
Nonclinical jobs tend to have reasonable schedules. Companies that hire physicians for nonclinical work often operate on normal business hours. Weekends, evenings, and on-call requirements are limited.
My stress levels are markedly lower than they’d otherwise be
Seeing patients back to back, all day long, day after day is stressful for me. It feels draining. By the end of the day, I often feel too exhausted to spend time doing activities for pleasure, and end up just lounging on the couch.
I’m good at being empathetic when a situation calls for it, but it doesn’t come naturally. I like to plan ahead, but this is tough or nearly impossible for a lot of clinical work types. Patient encounters actually make me sweat and clench my teeth. After doing this 20+ times throughout the day, I leave with a sore jaw and smelling like I haven’t bathed in days.
Most nonclinical jobs have sources of stress, undoubtedly. But a doctor with a nonclinical job tends to have more control over that stress.
You typically know what big projects are on your plate, when the deadlines are, and the apprehensions the company has about certain stakeholders. You have time to make action plans to address these things. You have control over how to prioritize your schedule. This prevents and mitigates stress.
I have more time and energy for personal endeavors
Since nonclinical work is less taxing than patient care work in a clinical setting, I don’t feel the need to spend all of my free time decompressing from the previous day or week. I’m energized and motivated to be active and productive in my spare time.
I use my free time for personal interests as well as professional pursuits. I have the time and energy to participate in professional activities outside of work.
I serve on my county’s Board of Health, for instance. Before we meet every month, I have ample time to review the meeting materials and prepare to participate in the discussion. On the days we have a meeting schedule, I actually look forward to the meeting throughout the day. If I had to go directly from a full day in the clinic to the meeting, I would dread the looming obligation.
I have better relationships
When I had full-time clinical duties, I didn’t really want to tell my husband about my day after returning home in my exhausted state. I sometimes didn’t have much inclination to spend time with friends. That’s rarely the case with nonclinical work.
With my nonclinical job, I’ve been more likely to nurture both personal and professional relationships.
More energy and less stress have afforded me the opportunity to consider what is truly important to my personal happiness and life goals.
Sylvie Stacy, MD, MPH, is a preventive medicine physician and blogger at Look for Zebras. Her book 50 Nonclinical Careers for Physicians was recently published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.
Last Updated July 31, 2020