For doctors, career choice regrets vary by specialty

Young female doctor sitting at desk in front of computer covering face with hand in frustration
Residents in some specialties have more regrets about their decision to become a doctor, a new study found. (Getty Images/PRImageFactory)

If they had it to do over again, residents who trained in pathology and anesthesiology were more likely to regret their choice of a career as a doctor.

In a survey of 3,571 resident physicians, career choice regret was reported by 502 or 14.1% of the respondents, according to a study published on Tuesday in JAMA. However, there were wide ranges of prevalence by clinical specialty.

For instance, 32.7% of those training in pathology and 20.6% of those training in anesthesiology said they regretted their career choice. That compared with 7.4% of those training in plastic surgery and 8.9% of those in family medicine who said if they were able to revisit their choice, they would not choose to become a physician again.

When it came to choice of their actual specialty, 253 of 3,570 resident physicians (7.1%) indicated they would “definitely not” or “probably not” choose the same specialty if given the change to revisit their choice.

The study looked at clinical specialty and its association with symptoms of both career choice regret and burnout among residents.

Hispanic or Latino doctors also reported a higher rate of specialty choice regret, independent of their reporting symptoms of burnout. The study said workplace discrimination related to ethnicity or social isolation may play a role in their career regret. “Resident physicians from ethnic minority groups may feel obligated to pursue excellence in their field and leverage their professional stature to improve the wellbeing of their communities,” the researchers wrote.

In addition, minority residents may have the added stressor of residency programs and institutions pressing them to participate in diversity initiatives that place demands on their time. Minority residents may become overcommitted or overwhelmed, which ultimately leads to dissatisfaction with their career choice, the researchers said.

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When it came to burnout, 45.2% of residents reported symptoms. Again, there were wide ranges of prevalence by clinical specialty, with those in urology, neurology, emergency medicine and general surgery at the highest risk. Residents with burnout had more than a threefold increase in odds of regretting their decision to become a physician.

While career choice regret and symptoms of burnout were prevalent among the resident physicians surveyed, the majority were satisfied with their career choice and specialty.

A separate survey from PracticeMatch, a provider of physician recruitment marketing resources to healthcare employers, found most practicing physicians are satisfied with their careers, but less satisfied with their income. The survey revealed low income growth for the year across all the specialties it surveyed.

Of the 1,218 respondents, more than half reported being very or extremely satisfied with their current position. Only one-third or 37% of physicians reported earning more in 2017 than they did the previous year.