Barriers to Leaving Medicine for Doctors

Leaving medicine isn't an easy decision. There are lots of internal and external barriers that may deter one from taking the plunge. Exploring the barriers to leaving medicine will help you navigate making this difficult decision and help you confront your fears.

barriers to leaving medicine

“I’m miserable at work, but I don’t know if I should quit or not.” There are so many thoughts that go on in people’s minds when considering a huge decision like quitting their jobs. But for doctors, the psychological barriers are even higher. Aside from the internal dilemma, there is also stigma from family, colleagues and society to deal with. Exploring those internal and external barriers to leaving medicine can help you navigate the decision making process with more confidence and less anxiety.

1. Feeling trapped in your role as a doctor

This is a common theme in a lot of messages we get at Medic Footprints Malaysia. Many doctors who are considering leaving medicine are paralysed by the fear of not knowing what else to do. Medicine as a career can be all-consuming, and it’s such a tight-knit fraternity that it can become all you know. You wonder if you’d be able to do anything else but medicine. 

But stop for a minute and think about how you managed to get into medical school in the first place. You had to work super hard at school, get top grades at every subject (not just biology). You had to have an impressive extracurricular portfolio and be outstanding at your admission interview. And in your job, aside from the clinical knowledge, you learnt so many other skills without even realising it: time-management, communication skills, doing audits, documentation, working in a  team, and working under pressure. Ask any HR department officer, these are vital skills in any career! 

You are more than just a doctor. Don’t let that limit you, the world is your oyster!

Being stuck in the medical world for so long may have numbed you to how amazing you really are. It’s important to realise and remember how you can really do anything you set your mind to do — just like how you’ve managed to do so to get to where you are now.

2. Feeling guilty

You spent 5-6 years in medical school. You got a scholarship, or a loan, or your parents paid for it; either way it’s a huge financial cost to study medicine. You carry the hopes and pride of your parents, your family, and your own dreams on your shoulder. Your colleagues depend on you, your patients need you, your country expects you to serve. No wonder guilt is such a huge barrier for many doctors who want to leave medicine. You feel guilty because leaving medicine would mean disappointing all these people, wasting all those years and all that money. 

However you must also remember that you have a duty to yourself too. Is it worth sacrificing your mental health for a job? Would your parents be happy seeing you drive yourself to the ground just to keep the “doctor” job title? And this may sound harsh, but at work you are replaceable. If you left today, someone else will be hired to fill your spot. But to you, to your loved ones, you are one and unique, and absolutely irreplaceable. 

Think about your priorities in life, and what REALLY matters to you and to those you care for. At the end of the day, your health and wellbeing should always come first.

3. Loss of identity

Maybe it’s because of the prestigious title, or maybe it’s because of how hard you had to work to become a doctor, but so many of us attach our identity to our job as a doctor. This can become a personal barrier to leaving medicine, as losing your sense of identity is a scary thought. You might feel that being a doctor is all you’ve ever worked for, and without that title and role you are unsure about who you are and what your role is in society.

A lot of doctors enter medicine because of their passion to help others and save lives, and feel that if they left medicine they would lose that part of themselves that is contributing to the community. Some may have dreamt of being a doctor all their lives, and have worked tirelessly to make that dream a reality. And now that they are questioning whether to leave this career, it can make them feel that they are betraying their own aspirations and dreams.

A healthier way to think about it is to separate your identity and self worth from what is essentially just a job. You are so much more than just a doctor; leaving medicine does not mean that you are worth less, that you failed, or that you can’t contribute to the world anymore. It just means that you’ll be doing it from a different path. 

4. Uncertainty about what to do next

Out of all the internal barriers to leaving medicine, this is definitely one of the biggest ones. And it relates to the first point about feeling trapped. There is a mindset that once you’ve graduated from medical school, you have to become a doctor, you have to work in a hospital or clinic, then continue studying until you become a specialist, then retire. This one-track pathway can make doctors feel that there aren’t any other options out there if they do choose to leave. Besides that, having focused so much effort on getting into medicine can make you forget about your other passions and interests, and you might feel unsure about what other things you want to do if you quit. 

“There is something remarkable about each one of us. Seize the opportunity to look within and rediscover yourself.” – Roopleen

To overcome this barrier requires having some time for self reflection and introspection. Looking into yourself and asking some important questions: what are your core values, what are the skills you already have, what do you enjoy doing, what causes are you passionate about. We’ll be having an article next week about figuring out what career would be best for you, so watch this space!

5. Stigma from those around you

Quitting medicine is already such a difficult decision. But when added with the stigma from society, colleagues and even your loved ones, it makes the barriers to leaving medicine a million times higher. The common ones I’m sure you’ve heard,  might include: failure, weak, too sensitive or emotional, pampered generation, too entitled. Your family might feel that you’re a disappointment. They may say “you’ve wasted so much time and money just to quit”, or that “so many people out there want to be a doctor but you’re just throwing it away”. It’s tough to deal with criticism from others, but it can be incredibly painful coming from those you care about. 

stigma wordlcloud

I don’t think there’s any easy way to deal with stigma and criticism. At Medic Footprints Malaysia, we are trying to raise awareness about these issues to end stigma from the roots, but it’s a process that will take time. In the meanwhile, having a strong support network is important to keep you going. Talking to family and friends who have your best interests, trying to make them see your side of the story, hopefully will bring them to your cause and be more supportive.

Sometimes this doesn’t work. You may have to struggle for a while, but once they see you being happier and successful at your new path, they’ll slowly see that this was the right decision for you. Joining a community of like-minded people like Medic Footprints Malaysia is also a great way to keep your motivation up! You’ll never have to walk alone (no I’m not a Liverpool fan) when you’re with MF Malaysia, we’re here for you all the way.

Overcoming it all

Ultimately, the key to overcoming all these barriers lies in you. By truly knowing yourself, your priorities, and how you’d like your life to really be. As humans, we are all in pursuit of our own happiness and fulfillment. You deserve the chance to pursue your choices and make those important life decisions. And we are here to support you through that epic journey.

Are you ready to take the plunge? Check out this article for the next steps to take! If you need more encouragement, click here and here for inspiring anecdotes of our talented medics who have transitioned into diverse careers. You can also check out this piece for more insights about whether leaving medicine is really for you.

To stay updated on our webinars, job vacancies and other events in store, sign up for our mailing list here. You can also connect with us through our Facebook page, our Instagram account and our Twitter handle. Medic Footprints Malaysia welcomes you to our community, come and join us! It’s a great community with lots of resources to help you on your journey, no matter what path you’re on.

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Bessima Jamal

Bessima is currently working as a medical officer at a local university hospital in her hometown of Sabah, Malaysia, with an interest in pursuing Family Medicine. She is passionate about exploring life outside of medicine and enjoys reading, travelling, watching K-dramas and anime. She also occasionally writes articles for newspaper publications like the New Strait Times.

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