Ask the Half MD: Are there any jobs for M.D.’s that don’t want to practice medicine?

November 11, 2007 at 11:29 pm (Ask the Half MD)

Every year about this time, medical students at all levels of their training begin questioning if they’ve made the right decision in life by pursuing an M.D. Whether this issue arises as a result of the first bad grade received on an exam or it comes from looming uncertainty of becoming a clinician for 20+ years, many students will eventually wonder if they can pursue careers outside of medicine.

Unfortunately, I can’t imagine many reasons for employers to seek physicians on any other grounds other than their medical acumen. While the C.I.A. is looking for health analysts, similar jobs are hard to come by. By its very nature, medical school is designed to give professional training for a occupation with a narrow focus. If it trained any more broadly, we’d call it business school and give everyone an M.B.A.

Sure, we can point to famous physicians such as Sanjay Gupta, Michael Crichton, and Howard Dean, but none of them really needed a medical degree to pursue their current careers. Gupta is merely a reporter; Crichton is a science fiction writer; and Dean long gave up anything remotely related to health or science. If anything, these men took on needless amounts of debt and schooling only to keep someone else from that spot in the applicant pool from becoming a real clinician.

Some readers will bring up the idea of health managers—hospital and health plan directors who don’t see patients, but still need some amount of medical knowledge before setting up shop. My answer to this objection is to look at the ages and resumes of these administrators. Many of the M.D.’s started off in practice and gained experience before transitioning over to leadership roles. Further, the field is full of managers with no firsthand healthcare skills. Duke University offers a degree in health sector management without any requirements of prior medical training. You don’t necessarily need to be a doctor to know how to lead other physicians. And given how poorly medical schools and residency programs are already run, I’m glad that others realize that having doctors in charge is a bad idea.

I realize that the thought of seeing sick patients for the rest of your life can seem unflattering. I also realize that there are warrant fears of getting sued, getting sick, or losing out on family time. However, anyone thinking of applying to medical school needs to understand what this life entails. The blogosphere is full of horror stories of medical training and practice simply because many of the things we experience are so painful. If you’re still in the pre-med phase, take a while to evaluate what an M.D. really means to you. You can certainly find other ways to gain money and respect without taking this route. If you’re already in medical school or residency, things get trickier. While Hoover was willing to leave, others may not be willing to make the same move so early. I’ve already seen so many classmates regret the choices they made in coming to medical school. Getting accepted is difficult enough; being able to admit to such a mistake is even harder.



  1. Sarah Jane said,

    hmmm, the CIA…
    actually, you are wrong about gupta and dean. dean practiced medicine until he became governor. reasonable in my estimation. dr gupta still practices neurosurgery at emory university in atlanta.

  2. halfmd said,

    Yes, working for the CIA sounds kind of interesting, but when you realize that the position is for medical commentator and not super spy, the appeal starts to fade.

    About Gupta and Dean: I didn’t mention anything about their practicing medicine. I said that an M.D. was unnecessary for serving as governor or becoming a reporter.

  3. Immy said,

    The last paragraph sent shivers down my spine!!!!

    As someone who has just left medical school in their 4th year, I only wished I had read other peoples experiences earlier. I knew from about the middle of the first year, a career in medicine was not for me but it took me 3 years to get the courage to leave. I had this delusion that I was the only person who wasn’t excited by the entire experience that is medical school!! All I have got to say is medicine is a great career but only if you really want it……And you have really got to want it to get back what you put in (if that makes any sense).

    Thanks Half MD, I have been reading your blog for a while now and continue even after leaving medical school, bizarrely it still inspires me just as much.

  4. batguano101 said,

    Interesting take on it.

    I am a FMG who got blocked here and am licensed abroad.

    The system in the US treats FMG’s like dirt, blocks, oppresses, and defrauds: so it is not very user friendly if the good ol boys want to stomp you for kicks.

    There are no jobs, as in zero, for the targeted FMG within the US- official oppression is applied to prevent any work in medicine at any level.

    So goes the medical mafia of the USA.
    I would not trust anyone in the AMA with a sick dog.

  5. Jon said,

    But did the MD give them the credibility to get to where the got? Did it act as the first stepping stone?

  6. Craig said,

    It’s interesting to read the poor me attitudes of people in medical school who really aren’t sure they want to be there… It’s unfortunate they didn’t have the opportunity to work in a warehouse, construction site, factory or many other places, wondering if their services would be required a few months from now. I’m amazed at how such “brilliant” people were allowed into the system in the first place?

  7. Ben H. said,

    There are many things I did learn in medical school and residency. What I did not learn, however, may have the greatest impact on my day-to-day as a practicing physician. One thing I wish I had known before was the extent to which student loans would effect my post-school life. I am not asking for sympathy, but a little education on student loans before medical school would have been nice. Seems this problem is only getting worse. One basically has to take out a mortgage (for a nice home, too) to pay for medical school. Physicians are no longer independent small business people. The larger health systems have taken over making it very difficult to simply hang out your shingle and be your own boss. Some may not want to run the show. I was one of those who wanted to be an employed physician and be left to serve my patients. I traded independence for being managed by bean-counters, none of whom have any medical knowledge. My ability to suffer these fools had been depleted. Only one problem, there are precious few jobs available in areas most people would want to live. You could go off and work deep in the mountains of NC or middle-of-nowhere Montana. Salary for such positions would be generous, but you would be the only doc for hours in every direction and would be on call practically all the time. Not a very sustainable situation. Would I do it all again? I love my patients, I feel the work I do does matter in their lives (especially the refugee and immigrant families we serve), but my clinic is in disarray and is constantly hemorrhaging money. If I could go back, I would likely choose a different path.

  8. maria catanach said,

    I have no intention to practice medicine. Just seem to know way more about oncology than those who practice in NM.

  9. Diane Lal said,

    Similar to the article website, half this information provided
    is also half and not very well researched. If the MD title wasn’t valuable unless your in practice then why issue MDs after medical school? Why not wait until after residency and get your MD? The problem is the research needs to start during your 4th year in medical school and not when you get rejected and are scrambling for other opportunities if you don’t make the match. You’d be treading in unfamiliar waters but there are rewards…stable hours, time with family etc.
    Many practicing colleagues are burnt out. People who are not in the field
    Will be your biggest critics but keep in mind- they are not in the field.
    Any job that a PHD student can do ( and they have no school debt), an MD can do, practicing or otherwise. You may need to supplement with a certificate or a masters degree but plan ahead. Many colleagues I’ve seen teach, write, work for Pharma, research etc. There is a way to contribute if you are comfortable with not seeing patients directly. If you want to see patients go on a mission trip, do a fellowship, look into alternative healthcare options.Hope this helps.

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