“Ever wondered what 52.4% of retiring surgeons regret most about their careers? Dive into their reflections for insights”
The roads not taken. The doors unopened. The choices left unexplored. We often find ourselves entangled in regret’s embrace, caught between the pain of hindsight and the tantalising what-ifs that flutter beyond our grasp. It’s as if the echoes of the past whisper through the winds, bitter reminders of paths untrodden. While dwelling on our own regrets may seem like a hopeless exercise, gleaning wisdom from the regrets of others can be incredibly useful. And so, I dove into exploring the existing, yet limited, literature on the regrets of retiring surgeons.
In a study that was one of the first of its kind, published in 2020, retired US surgeons candidly shared their reflections on their life and career. Among the 2153 participants, a significant majority (52.4%) revealed harbouring regrets about certain aspects of their surgical journey (figure 1). Notably, nearly 25% of surgeons expressed the wish for more family time and better self-care, underscoring the delicate balance between dedication to their profession and personal life. Insights into career specialisation emerged as well, as 12.7% expressed the desire for a more balanced yet financially rewarding surgical speciality, often leaning towards plastic surgery, orthopaedics, or pediatric surgery. Other regrets included unexplored non-medical careers (6.0%), opportunities for mentorship and teaching (4.2%), and only 1.1% of surgeons wishing to make more money. The self-reported regrets (which made up 14.5% of responses) encompassed a spectrum of wishes: more involvement in research; a greater ability to adapt to change and take more risks; the pursuit of better mentors, and perhaps most interestingly, dedicating more time to patients.(1)
A 2021 study also looking into the career experiences, both positive and negative, of surgeons in the US identified patient care as the most rewarding facet (87%), closely followed by shaping junior surgeons’ growth (70%). Poignantly, 52% acknowledged that given a chance anew, they would channel more moments towards family. Additionally, of note, what the study showed was that a large proportion of the participants agreed that surgical research, in all its forms, played a pivotal role in revitalising careers and nurturing personal satisfaction. (2)
However, it’s essential to approach these findings with a caveat. The study was conducted exclusively among American surgeons, and its insights might not necessarily mirror the sentiments of doctors in the UK or other regions. Cultural and systemic differences could shape the nature and prevalence of regrets in varied healthcare contexts. Despite this limitation, these unfiltered reflections shed light on the intricacies of a surgeon’s journey, offering lessons for both present and future practitioners.
COVID-19 has changed the medical landscape and how doctors practice medicine in countless ways. It also forced everyone, health professionals and the general public alike, to reassess their lives and evaluate what they found to be most important and rewarding. Delving into the regrets of retiring surgeons, and paying heed to their advice and wisdom can help arm the next generation with the knowledge and foresight needed to lead a healthier and more fulfilling career. Particularly, in light of the fact that increasingly doctors are choosing to retire early with the number of doctors claiming NHS pensions before retirement age at the highest it’s ever been since 2008 (figure 2)(3). The NHS cannot afford to lose these doctors, clinicians at the peak of their careers, with decades of experience. It is only from their hard-won expertise that the NHS can prosper and new generations of doctors can be trained and grown.
In the tapestry of a doctor’s life, regrets and rewards intersect to weave a narrative. The candid reflections of retired surgeons offer a reservoir of insights, bridging the chasm between what could have been and what is yet to be achieved. As we grapple with the evolving landscape of healthcare, their insights serve as beacons that illuminate our path forward, paving a path towards a more balanced, rewarding, and fulfilling medical journey.
- Stolarski, A., Moseley, J.M., O’Neal, P., Whang, E.E. and Kristo, G. (2020). Retired Surgeons’ Reflections on Their Careers. JAMA Surgery, [online] 155(4), pp.359–359. doi:https://doi.org/10.1001/jamasurg.2019.5476.
- Hewitt, L. and Ashford, B. (2022). Career reflections of retired surgeons. Anz Journal of Surgery, [online] 93(1-2), pp.21–23. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/ans.18173.
- Moberly, T. (2023). More doctors are choosing to retire early. BMJ, [online] pp.p1450–p1450. doi:https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p1450.