Physician Retirement Age by Specialty

Kristen Campbell
August 10, 2020

Physician Retirement Age by Specialty

The average physician retirement age is typically older than the general population, and part of this simply boils down to job satisfaction – for many doctors, practicing medicine is a passion rather than just a career, and the relationships they’ve developed over the years while building up their practice and their patient books are what keep them motivated to continue. Other reasons for late retirement could be financial obligations coming from the additional years of schooling required for a medical career or from the flexibility available for physicians to gradually reduce their workload in the years leading up to full retirement.

So how old are most doctors when they retire? The average physician retirement age in Canada is 65. However, there is a significant amount of variability on the other side of this – depending on their gender and location,, the average physician could retire anywhere from their late 50s to their early 70s, tending to be later than other subsets of the general population. While the Canadian Medical Association Journal found no significant differences between medical specializations in terms of retirement age, the process of retirement can look different depending on the type of medicine you practice. 

Here are a few examples of how these timeframes can change based on the needs of your specialization:

 

Family Medicine

The biggest difference in terms of family medicine practitioners versus other specializations is the demands of owning a practice. Over half of family physicians choose to work in a physician owned practice rather than a hospital or employer setting. This has a number of implications for your retirement. First of all, working in a hospital setting may give you the opportunity to have the employer pay into your pension or your RRSP savings account for you, eliminating some of the time it takes to save your way to retirement. 

For physician-owners, the practice itself might make up part of your retirement nest egg – income from selling your ownership stake can be pulled out at a lower tax rate using the Lifetime Capital Gains Exemption and invested for your future retirement spending. 

Other reasons that could keep family medicine doctors in practice for longer is their relationship with their patients – GP roles are highly relationship driven, and this connection with your patients is likely part of the reason you got into the profession in the first place. Family medicine practitioners are also some of the happiest in the profession – 79% of family physicians report high levels of satisfaction from their career. 

Owing to this satisfaction and the level of investment family medicine practitioners have had to make in their business, many of them want to phase out their retirement in stages, often by lowering their workload by around 10% each year, in order to attend to the needs of their patients while also making more time for themselves and their families.

 

Medical Specialists

When it comes to medical specialties like pediatrics, internal medicine, or obstetrics, the average age of retirement will be impacted by the same factors involved in deciding to leave any branch of medicine: whether or not you own your own practice, whether you are financially and mentally ready, and how long it will take you to notify and transfer all of your patients. 

Some specialties, like internists, OB/GYNS, and pediatricians will have the same patient focus and relationship building priorities as family doctors – that is, they might want to remain in practice because the relationships with their patients they’ve built up over the years is fulfilling. Medical specialists are also in relatively short supply. The average medical specialist pursues an additional 3-5 years of schooling post-medical school, and many specializations, like dermatology, require competition for tough to get residency spots. This means that when the time comes for specialists to retire, they might need to set aside a fair bit of time to find a replacement, as not many new doctors are available to take their place. 

This might not be a bad thing – since medical specialists do spend more time in school than a family doctor, they may also have an additional burden of student loans, and are less likely to own their own practice, eliminating the additional income possible from selling their stake. Even so, medical specialists do earn higher salaries than family physicians, leaving plenty of room to plan for their retirement.

 

Surgical Specialists

While general surgeons are one of the younger specializations in practice, with just over 20% of them nearing retirement age, many of the surgical specialties, like cardiothoracic surgeons, are well above the average. This is likely due to a few factors. First of all, although many surgical specializations report less work life balance compared to more general specialties, they also are often more highly paid and more specialized in what they do, and this shows – according to the CMA, 73% of general surgeons are satisfied with their current professional life. This could mean a greater passion for their job and the desire to use the skills they’ve gained for a longer time. The other reasons for the generally older population of surgeons are more practical – although they are some of the highest paid medical specializations, they also spend the longest amount of time in school. This means a greater burden of student debt, and could mean putting off things like paying off the mortgage, putting your children through school, and saving up for your own retirement. 

Since many surgical specialists are so highly specialized, they are often passionate experts on the type of work they perform, and are likely to be more interested in staying in the profession through different types of roles, whether it be locum work, a reduced workload, or through a teaching focus. Which is a good thing – thanks to this level of specialization, surgeons are also one of the more difficult physicians to replace. Currently there are just over 2000 general surgeons in Canada according to the CMA – which means a surgeon looking to sell their practice or pass on their duties to a successor will need some time before finding a suitable replacement. In this case, it might be a good idea to take advantage of a more flexible workweek, reduce your patient load, and take your time in considering retirement.

 

ER Doctors

As opposed to the other specializations, ER doctor retirement age is generally quite young, with many physicians in their early 40s already considering it. This is not due to a gap in older physicians in the workforce, but more to do with a tendency for ER physicians to retire early or switch to another type of medicine in their later years, owing to burnout.

A study from the Journal for Preventative Medicine reported nearly 40% of ER physicians in a Korean cohort intended to retire early. Given that only 20% of Canadian ER doctors are nearing retirement age, Canada seems to be seeing a similar trend. 

So what’s driving this early retirement? The demands of the ER physicians report higher levels of job stress and burnout compared to the other professions, thanks in part to the demands of the job, the fast pace required to handle the working duties, and the amount of on-call time the job requires. This can lead to excess stress not only for the physicians themselves, who have invested considerable time and money into their career, but also for the remaining ER doctors, who now face strain due to understaffing. 

Fortunately, these factors also mean ER doctors are one of the most in-demand locum roles around the world, which means that you don’t need to fully retire to take advantage of benefits like flexible working hours or time to travel. So while they might be lowering the average retirement age, emergency physicians have plenty of opportunities for even more flexibility in their later years than other physicians. Since they are also mainly employed by hospitals, ER physicians are more likely to have access to employer provided benefits or retirement contribution matching programs, which could help to prepare them financially for retirement. 

 

No matter what your specialization, when you’re thinking of retirement many of the issues are the same – are you financially ready to retire? Are you going to be okay with leaving your profession and your patients? Do you have the right steps in place to sell your stake in your physician owned practice, or a pension to retire on? No matter what kind of doctor you are, your answers to these questions will be specific to you – so think carefully, do some groundwork, and start planning your perfect future!

 

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