How to plan for your retirement so you don’t finish on a bad note

Aug 23, 2016

For many doctors, knowing when to hang up their stethoscope and retire from a vocation that may define their personal identity can be difficult.

Unfortunately, some doctors are not aware of their physical or cognitive decline and have retirement forced upon them. This often occurs after a formal complaint about the doctor’s competence or conduct.

Pushed into retirement

A simple complaint over a disputed referral letter led to an interview which revealed that the physician had fixed and out-dated views on patient management and was possibly cognitively impaired. An assessment found that her frontal executive skills were significantly impaired, affecting her verbal abstract reasoning, planning and organisational skills. This was severe enough to affect her ability to practise and she was suspended from practice, signifying a sad end to a distinguished career.

As a doctor, you don’t want to find yourself in this position. The information below gives you guidance on knowing when to retire and how to plan for it, to help you make a smooth adjustment to your retirement so that you can enjoy it worry free.

Retirement not a priority for many doctors

Research supported by Avant and led by Chanaka Wijeratne, Senior Psychiatrist, Academic Department for Old Age Psychiatry, Prince of Wales Hospital, and Associate Professor, School of Medicine Sydney, University of Notre Dame Australia, highlights that retiring is not a priority for many doctors.

The unpublished survey in over 1000 Australian doctors aged 55 and over, showed that just over 60% of doctors intended to retire, while 40% did not intend to retire or were unsure.

“The survey results showed that doctors with stronger financial resources were more likely to retire, indicating that financial planning from a younger age is really important,” A/Professor Wijeratne says. “Doctors for whom work took precedence over other aspects of their life were also less likely to retire.”

Doctors’ family circumstances were another important factor in their decision to retire, especially for female doctors who were more likely to retire if they had caring responsibilities or their spouse had retired.

According to the survey, general practitioners (GPs) and psychiatrists were the least likely to indicate they would retire, and surgeons and anaesthetists were the most likely.

“Whilst these results may be related to financial issues, other factors such as physical changes may be contributory,” A/Professor Wijeratne says.

Knowing when to retire

Doctors have a responsibility to practise medicine safely and when you get older you may not realise that your standard of care isn’t as good as it once was. Which begs the question - what is a good age to retire?

Based on the research and his professional experience, A/Professor Wijeratne believes that 70 is the “amber light” for doctors when it comes to retirement.

“Although I do not advocate a mandatory retirement age and the timing of retirement will depend on individual circumstances, if you are still working at 70, you should be thinking about transitioning to retirement,” he says. “Research also shows that patient outcomes tend to get poorer as the age of the doctor increases. Only about 15% of doctors over 75 perform as well as younger colleagues in complex areas of cognition like speed of thinking and working memory. But how do you know that you are one of the 15%?” he asks.

Warning signs

Don’t assume you will know when the right time is to stop – listen to your colleagues and family.

Complaints from patients or colleagues can often be a warning sign, especially for doctors who have had a long and relatively complaint free career.

“Doctors should also consider the impact of any vascular risk factors they have, such as ischaemic heart disease, high cholesterol, hypertension or diabetes, which can lead to cognitive impairment,” A/Professor Wijeratne says.

“Another red flag for wondering whether you should be hanging up your stethoscope is if you are finding it hard to keep up with changes in patient expectations, new treatments and cultural expectations, or it could be as simple as forgetting to perform routine duties such as returning patient calls.”

Planning for life after medicine

Retirement is often the start of a new and exciting chapter, but the key to a successful retirement, is planning for it, just like you would for any career transition.

“It’s important for doctors to see their retirement as a process and to plan years ahead,” A/Professor Wijeratne says. “Research shows that people adjust to retirement much better if they have control over the timing and circumstance of their retirement.”

He suggests that doctors start planning for their retirement around the age of 55. Designing a structured retirement plan which includes your retirement date can help. For example, “At the end of this year I will cut down my hours to three days a week and I will finish work in December 2018.”

“It’s important to see it as a transition, so you might start cutting down your hours, or stop doing on-call, overnight or after-hours work,” he says. “If you are a GP for instance, you might bring another colleague into the practice and start handing over patients.”


  • Obtain financial advice to help you plan for your retirement
  • Design a structured retirement plan which includes your retire date
  • Inform your colleagues about your retirement plans to enable succession planning
  • Recognise your health limitations
  • Ensure you have allied health/administration support in the practice if needed
  • Limit your hours and patient numbers
  • Cut out additional work such as nursing home visits, after-hours calls and house calls if you are a GP.

For more information, read our FAQs for doctors leaving a practice.

The Avant Retirement Reward Dividend: another way you share in our financial success

If you plan to retire or have retired this current financial year and are a voting member as of 30 June 2016, you may be eligible to receive a Retirement Reward Dividend. Find out more

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