Do retired surgeons express regrets about their career?

A recently published study has evaluated the reflections of retired surgeons in North America on their life and career. Their results reveal that more than half (52.4%) of retired surgeons wish they had done things differently in the past. The most common (762 of 1233 [61.8%]) retrospective wish was to have achieved a healthier work-life balance, even if that meant pursuing a different surgical specialty, or even choosing a non-medical career.

These findings contradict the generally-held perception that older generations of surgeons placed less emphasis on their personal and family life than the current generation of surgical practitioners. A possible explanation for this contradiction might be that, despite their desire for a healthier work-life balance, earlier generations of surgeons practiced in an era when workplace requirements, professional regulations, and cultural norms were hardly conducive to any sort of constructive debate on work-life balance. With this wealth of prior experience, retired surgeons would appear to have a potential for mentoring their younger colleagues to help them to achieve a rewarding and fulfilling career and to avoid future regrets.

What are your own views? Do you have regrets about your career in retrospect? How can we help our younger colleagues in surgery achieve a better work-life balance and spend more time with their family?

Comments (9) Add yours ↓
  1. Nitin Shrotri Consultant Urologist

    How timely! My last official day in the NHS was yesterday. I am happy to say that i have no regrets and have achieved the perfect work life balance. I have done the very best for my patients. More importantly, I know my limitations, and haven’t hesitated to ask for help. I have enjoyed the affection and appreciation of my workmates, consultants, junior doctors, nurses and some managers. The trick, I believe is, without being nosy, to take a genuine interest in the well being of all around you, including your own family. Stay principled and refuse to run after money or power. These will automatically come to us, in good time, more so, if Lady Luck smiles upon us. Give, and you shall receive. Be like Frodo! Do not be tempted to keep the ring!

    February 3, 2020 Reply
  2. Marcus Setchell Retired Obstetrician/Gynaecologist

    No regrets on looking back; following the philosophy of “work hard/play hard” seemed to work well for me and my family. In part, it could be because the work/life balance of the junior doctor was so uncomplainingly accepted, that anything was better than that! Many of our generation loved it all so much that we carried on working after retirement (in my case, 65 from the NHS and not until 70 from private practice, by which time I think most of us should stop. Appraisal, self-awareness of declining dexterity/skills, as well as inviting others to point out any deficiencies are important in the latter years.
    Post-retirement people frequently ask if one misses work, to which the answer is firmly no if you are lucky enough to remain healthy, have interests and activities to remain so, and the special blessing of grandchildren as well as supportive partner and friends!

    February 3, 2020 Reply
  3. Hugh N Whitfield Consultant Urological Surgeon

    Roger has invited me to contribute to this blog as a retired surgeon. But I have not retired. I still have the pleasure and privilege of finding some patients who have been coming to see more for years continue to consult me. Others, new and old, want a second opinion. My role as an expert witness continues to increase. Keeping up the necessary CPD is fun – even if appraisals and revalidation are not. I am an appraiser and enjoy meeting colleagues from whom I learn a lot.
    Togethers with two Foundation year doctors we designed a survey that was circulated to F1s and F2s, to gather opinion of how recent events had and might continue to influence their careers. The study was published ij the Medico-Legal Journal in December 2019.
    I have become a qualified mediator. To promote this philosophy I have arranged a meeting entitled ‘Mediation in Clinical Negligence’. This meeting will be held at the Royal Society of Medicine in the afternoon of Thursday 26 March 2020.
    There is time also for family, leisure pursuits, travel, music, reading and sports.

    February 4, 2020 Reply
  4. Asif Muneer Consultant Urological Surgeon

    I haven’t retired but reading this article highlights that retirement planning should start early.
    With the ongoing pension issues and increase in the retirement age nationally, I suspect the current generation will work longer but place more emphasis on work-life balance which is a positive step.
    In surgery – everyday is a challenge which I personally enjoy. If you don’t enjoy it – then you count down the years to your retirement. If you enjoy what you are doing then you don’t think about the number of years left but instead set yourself more goals.

    February 4, 2020 Reply
  5. Roger Kirby Professor of Urology

    Thanks Nitin, Sir Marcus and Hugh. No regrets there then. I have some. I definitely did not spend sufficient time with my children when they were young because I was always working. Luckily all three seem to have flourished in spite of (or maybe because of) my absence. I also regret some of the mistakes I made as a clinician – most of which could have been avoided had I developed a cross- checking mentality rather earlier than I did. Litigation after inadvertent medical error can be very debilitating and also extremely expensive. The NHS in England faces paying out £4.3bn in legal fees to settle outstanding claims of clinical negligence. Each year the NHS receives more than 10,000 new claims for compensation. The Department of Health has pledged to tackle “the unsustainable rise in the cost of clinical negligence”. Estimates published last year put the total cost of outstanding compensation claims at £83bn – more than half NHS England’s total annual budget £129bn.
    Hugh Whitfield’s upcoming meeting at the RSM in March on mediation as a way to resolve medico-legal claims provides an alternative way ahead – I would urge readers to attend.

    February 5, 2020 Reply
  6. Christian brown Urologist

    Congratulations Nitin! As a 10 years in consultant there is so much to balance and advice from my senior colleagues is always appreciated. The NHS is changing as rapidly as ever and administrative burden, targets, managerial and clinical activity seem to be dominating long days at work and it’s essential that time is made for family, friends and importantly ones self.

    I asked an FY1 recently in her end of year assessment to list her hobbies and achievements outside of medicine in the last year only to hear that there has been no time and she didn’t get away on holiday as she had planned. Not good!

    Medicine is tough and it’s essential that we learn from our seniors, peers and juniors about getting the balance right and only that way will we avoid regret. So far I have few and want it to remain that way…..

    February 5, 2020 Reply
  7. John Boyd Consiultant urologist

    I have been retired for some 14 years and consider myself as very fortunate in having greatly enjoyed working and also my retirement. It has been a very privileged life. My colleagues at every level were nearly always helpful and a pleasure to work with, learn from and sometimes help. I had an opportunity for succession planning which meant that I had confidence in the future care of my patients and could retire a little earlier than strictly necessary. I stopped Private Practice before leaving the NHS which is something I can recommend. Looking back it is the patients who were always the stars of the show and of course the the individuals from whom one learned the most. Some regrets in how they were looked after are inevitable and there are things I would subsequently have done differently but this was part of the learning process. My family were amazingly tolerant. My (working) wife once described herself as a single mother without financial problems. Our four children appear to have survived and definitely have better balanced lives than their father. Overall I cannot think of any significant regrets.

    February 6, 2020 Reply
  8. Culley Carson Professor of Urologyt

    That survey and publication is certainly thought provoking! Ass a retired urologist, I both agree and disagree. One cannot take care of patients and be an effective surgeon without a high level of commitment to the profession. I would argue that newer surgeons and physicians may not see that same commitment probably because of work hours and other factors. For myself, I always tried to achieve the balance of profession and family by giving attention to my children even as the expense of some disapproval of others. Indeed, in my first job out of residence I was advised that “vacation is a sign of weakness” a very unhealthy concept.

    While I agree that we older surgeons went over the edge at times in our time in the hospital, I feel that my career as an academic urologist was very fulfilling and I would definitely take the same path again. That being said, more time for work-life balance would have been great benefit for personal health and happiness.

    February 8, 2020 Reply
  9. John Dick Retired Consultant Urologist

    Thank you, Roger. I greatly enjoyed my urological career but I do regret that I didn’t get the work / life balance quite right. Years and years of 70 -80 hour weeks were ideal for good patient care, especially continuity of care, but I saw too little of my three sons as they were growing up. It was always my wife who went to parents’ evening and school sports days. Luckily I was able to see most of my oldest son’s theatrical performances.
    The career I chose is clearly different from that of the younger generation. They have a much different work / life balance but I suspect that their work and the running of the NHS suffers as a result. I look back with happy memories of the old “firm” structure and the apprenticeship which it entailed. This has unfortunately all but disappeared and the juniors now have much less feeling of belonging to the team than they used to. I am sure that this was the major reason for their dispute with the government a couple of years ago, rather than concerns over low pay.
    For me retirement has been wonderful and I do not miss work. I do miss some of the patients, particularly those whom I saw over many years, but overall I feel that I have had a rewarding and enjoyable career which ended at an appropriate time.

    February 12, 2020 Reply

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