Remain Flexible in the Face of Layoffs

Physician's Money Digest, December31 2003, Volume 10, Issue 24

Losing a job can be traumatic. Just ask any of the millions of unemployed Americans today. The stress brought on by financial pressures and the loss of self-esteem can be detrimental to an individual's emotional and physical health.

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For a long time, physicians were immune from being handed the infamous pink slip. But in today's rough economic times, with hospitals, clinics, and universities desperately cutting back or shutting down completely, doctors are no longer above the fray. As several doctors noted in an article (www.ama-assn.org), it's not a comforting feeling.

Hard Lesson Learned

Charolette Hoffman, MD, a psychiatrist, had heard the rumors in the fall of 1997 that there might be layoffs at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa, but she wasn't worried. Although she knew the hospital had been struggling, she also knew she was among the lowest paid on staff. She felt secure—until January 1998, when she was laid off. Dr. Hoffman became angry and distrustful of corporations, but more important, determined it wouldn't happen again.

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Max Burger, MD, felt the same way. According to the article, Dr. Burger had been a New Jersey-based family physician for 18 years when he was laid off. He secured another position, but was laid off again. Dr. Burger recalls being crushed by the experience.

In sports they call it "gut-check time." For Drs. Hoffman and Burger, and many other doctors who have seen their lives temporarily turned upside down over the past few years, it was time to take stock. Counselors suggest that doctors who have been laid off use the experience to evaluate what they want to do with their personal and professional lives. They should talk to colleagues, explore what's needed in the market, and most important, determine what they love to do and look to do more of it.

Life After Layoffs

For Dr. Hoffman, the thought of working for someone else again was not an option. While driving around the city, she spotted a building with a "for rent" sign. She rented and renovated the building, and within a month saw her first patient. Last year, she purchased a larger building for the practice, which now has several therapists. The extra effort, which she says includes working 70- to 80-hour weeks, is worthwhile to be her own boss.

Similarly, Dr. Burger leased space in a hospital for 6 months and then opened a solo practice in Southampton, NJ. Other physicians who had also lost their jobs helped him to get over the hump and move on.

Wayne Sotile, PhD, codirector of Sotile Psychological Associates (www.sotile.com), says that most physicians are ill-prepared to handle being laid off. Despite the fact that more physicians have been laid off in the past 5 years than in the previous 20 years combined, company CEOs, not doctors, are taught to expect layoffs.

The events of the past few years have indeed been a rude awakening, but they've also opened doctors' eyes. David Neidorf, MD, a New Jersey-based family physician who opened his own practice following a layoff says, "You have to have a feeling for the financial stability of the place where you're working."

Temporary Option

Unemployed doctors who have not yet landed permanent positions might want to consider the results of the 2003 Review of Temporary Healthcare Staffing Trends and Initiatives. According to the report, spending on temporary US doctors more than quadrupled between 1997 and 2002, driven by chronic specialty shortages and the malpractice insurance crisis.

William Coutts, MD, a family physician who was laid off last year from a free clinic in Hot Springs, Ark, when funding for his position ran out, turned to locum tenens companies. Since last November, he has worked in Alaska, Arkansas, and North Dakota. The path, while taking away any long-term continuity, has provided steady income and proven professionally rewarding. He points out that the key to surviving a layoff is not to lose confidence.