Working locum tenens in semi-retirement

Illustration - locum physician thinking about retirement

Marye McCroskey, MD, FAAFP, shares how locum tenens has revived her love of medicine and eased her into semi-retirement.

At the age of 55, I was more burned out than I realized. I was ready for a change, but I didn’t think I was ready to quit medicine or fully retire. So, I made the transition from my private family medicine practice to give locum tenens a try. And what a perfect choice that was. I rediscovered my love of practicing medicine with locum tenens in semi-retirement.

For several years, I worked about nine to 10 months out of the year. My husband and I traveled, and I chose assignments in exotic places like Maui and St. Thomas, USVI.

Change in plans

Then my aging mother’s health needed more attention, and subsequently the pandemic hit. We settled in Key West. I resumed private practice and worked primary and urgent care; I am proud of what our little clinic was able to do for our community during this time. But, despite my concerted efforts, here came the burnout again, compounded by dealing with corporate medicine. Same song, second verse. 

So now I’m 62, technically Social Security age. But even though I was discouraged by the same administrative and political headaches in private practice, I didn’t want to give up medicine without trying to rediscover the love of medicine I found doing locums work.

Back on track

Still not able to travel like we did, I have dipped my toes back into locums. And no surprise, I’m enjoying medicine again. I’m more emotionally present when I am home and want to do more than work. I am currently working approximately eight to 10 shifts per month, and I even did a brief stint at the VA. My locum tenens schedule gives me more free time, and now I feel like I am dipping my toes into retirement.

As a primary care physician, I have seen examples of patients successfully and not so successfully moving into retirement. Some have thrived and others have floundered. Through these experiences, I developed my own ideas on how to help my patients approach this transition and coach many of them into retirement. Now it’s my turn to see if my own advice works.

What’s our approach to semi-retirement?

First, I suggest thinking about who we are, what gives us our identity, and what ways do we visualize it changing once we are fully retired. How do we expect relationships to change? Are we single and look forward to enjoying who we are? Think about extended family, parents, children, grandchildren, and, very importantly, who are our friends and where they are on their retirement journey.

Next, what do we want retirement to look like? As in day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year. This doesn’t mean we have to have our entire geriatric years laid out, but we should have ideas for hobbies and volunteer activities, and have a good idea of how we want to spend the days. Do we want to travel, downsize, move, or stay put? If we can visualize it, we can make it happen.

Lastly, are our finances ready for retirement? I suggest having a retirement budget and trying to live within those means for a year before retirement. Then we’re not in for the shock of limited resources and unlimited time.

What do I think of my own advice at this point? I think it is pretty sound.

Finding my identity

I’ve worn many hats over the years: daughter, wife, mother (my favorite), volunteer, and physician. And I’m not ready to stop being a physician. Despite all that has changed in medicine and the stress of the pandemic, I still believe it is an admirable profession with value. I’m grateful I can still contribute in a meaningful way. But I am ready to slow down a little and have more control. So for now, locums is perfect.

I have hobbies I enjoy, but I don’t see them replacing medicine. All the volunteer activities I want to pursue currently involve medicine. Relationships? Check. If my husband and I, married for 37 years, survived the pandemic with him stuck at home and me caring for covid patients, I think we are on solid ground. Mom still needs me. Kids would love us to retire fully and move closer to them, but I’m not ready to be away from the ocean, or to live in a cold climate. I need to continue to nurture friendships; what would we do without them?

Comfortable in semi-retirement

And finances are on track. We tried to live within retirement means while in St. Thomas as the pay was less than expected. We were successful, but we now have a house payment again. The income I make working locums takes care of that, and we’ll be fine.

Bottom line? I’m solidly in semi-retirement and plan to fully retire, but I’m not ready to stop practicing medicine. Being a locum allows me to do that, and continues to give me fulfilling opportunities, satisfying my desire to still be a physician — but still dip my toes into retirement.

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