By the NumbersPublication Exclusive

Ten ways to avoid ophthalmic career senescence

Resetting your professional clock may be necessary as you reach the second half of your career.

“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”
– Betty Friedan

“I am not afraid of aging, but more afraid of people’s reactions to my aging.”
– Barbara Hershey

“The aging process has you firmly in its grasp if you never get the urge to throw a snowball.”
– Doug Larson

As baby boomer statistics would have it, more than half of today’s ophthalmologists are now in the second half of their career. And like the second half of life, the back-half of one’s professional lifespan — let’s say from age 50 to 70 — is troubled with the progressive whiff of senescence.

  • There is the year when your case volumes or income or both fall for the first time.
  • Perhaps one of your partners pulls ahead at the same time.
  • You are more tired than you remember being at the end of the day and week.
  • You find yourself drifting off during board meetings or blowing them off altogether, no longer all that interested in the company’s affairs.
  • There can be a scary misadventure or two in the OR.

You wonder: “Is this the dark foretaste of worse to come? If I feel this way at 54, what will things be like at 64?”

Here are 10 ways to reset your professional clock.

1. Remember that prevention is better than a cure. Be vigilant and pre-emptively arrest any slide you are starting to make toward career senescence. Catch yourself short when you start thinking:

  • “I probably don’t need to learn that.”
  • “I can blow off that meeting.”
  • “That wasn’t my best work, but it got the job done.”
  • “Gosh, I’m tired and it’s only 3:30.”

2. Get out there. Visit friendly peers and their practices. At every career stage you should be making at least one field trip per year to a practice that is just like yours, only better. Do not take these trips alone. Bring your management team. Compare notes on the flight or drive back home. Most importantly, make a list of new ideas you are committed to adopting and the deadline for each.

3. At a bare minimum, attend at least one national meeting a year. Do not just show up, sit in the back and passively absorb the lectures. Walk up to the podium after each talk and chat with the speakers. Then get out on the vendor floor to learn what is coming around the corner. When you head back home, make a list of priority improvements you are committed to implementing in the next 12 months.

4. Become a mentor. Teaching obliges you to be current, and it is absolutely impossible to teach without learning something yourself. The opportunities are abundant:

  • Take a promising manager under your wing and teach them more about the services they are managing, which will help you in the long run.
  • Mentor a young surgeon in your practice or community.
  • Teach at the local university’s ophthalmology department. Nothing helps old dogs get sparky quite so well as hanging out with the young dogs.
  • Establish continuing education programs for primary care physicians, optometrists, techs and others in your community.

5. Become a mentee. Find someone who is generous with their time and smarter than you, and put yourself in their hands. There is no dishonor in saying to a with-it colleague, “Susan, I’ve always admired your leading-edge mindset and your unwavering excitement about our profession. I feel as though I’ve lost my own edge professionally. Can I ask you to take a look at how I’m practicing today and help me with a tune-up?”

6. Remember to not just tune up your medical-surgical skills. If you have withdrawn from your practice’s business affairs at the same pace as you have withdrawn from clinical affairs, you are slipping backward twice. As a practice owner, you should be reading (and understanding) the following business documents:

  • Monthly financial statements.
  • Formal business cases written to substantiate major purchases and initiatives.
  • The annual budget as it undergoes serial drafts.
  • Key performance indicators and benchmarking reports.
  • Annual updates of the practice’s strategic business plan.
  • Any updates to the shareholder agreements.

And you would be attending:

  • Board meetings and retreats.
  • All-hands staff meetings.
  • Selected staff training sessions.
  • Key hospital meetings.

7. If you are having a hard time getting motivated, remember that fear is a wonderfully effective motivator. Frighten yourself economically. Even if you think you are well over your financial finish line and all set for retirement, get a reality check from your CPA or fee-only financial planner every year or two. Ask them to forecast the odds of you outliving your money (assuming that the next 30 years are as volatile as some analysts believe). The answer you get may reset your ambitions and engagement.

8. Ask yourself: “Are my skills such that I would I trust myself to operate on me?” If the answer is “No,” then it may be time to either stop performing surgery or to retrain. Ask: “Are case volumes down because I’m senescing, or am I senescing as a surgeon because volumes are down?” Slow, progressive career senescence can lead to a self-reinforcing downward skills spiral: Less engagement leads to fewer cases, which in turn can make it hard to sharpen skills or substantiate retraining efforts.

9. Remember that the end of your surgical career is not necessarily the end of your professional career. Some of the most professionally happy surgeons I have met in the last 40 years are those in their emeritus years, who truly enjoy the relationships they have with each patient and the detective work of helping them feel and see better.

10. Finally, but perhaps more importantly than anything above, get fit. Between age 50 and 70, absent physical toning efforts, we lose about 30% of our strength. You need not become a gym rat. A few minutes of daily calisthenics and a brisk walk, combined with better eating habits and better sleep hygiene, will reset your biological clock and give you many added years of vigorous practice, if that is something you desire. If you lack the discipline to do this on your own, hire a personal trainer. Your staff will notice a new spring in your step. (And so will your romantic partner.)

“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”
– Betty Friedan

“I am not afraid of aging, but more afraid of people’s reactions to my aging.”
– Barbara Hershey

“The aging process has you firmly in its grasp if you never get the urge to throw a snowball.”
– Doug Larson

As baby boomer statistics would have it, more than half of today’s ophthalmologists are now in the second half of their career. And like the second half of life, the back-half of one’s professional lifespan — let’s say from age 50 to 70 — is troubled with the progressive whiff of senescence.

  • There is the year when your case volumes or income or both fall for the first time.
  • Perhaps one of your partners pulls ahead at the same time.
  • You are more tired than you remember being at the end of the day and week.
  • You find yourself drifting off during board meetings or blowing them off altogether, no longer all that interested in the company’s affairs.
  • There can be a scary misadventure or two in the OR.

You wonder: “Is this the dark foretaste of worse to come? If I feel this way at 54, what will things be like at 64?”

Here are 10 ways to reset your professional clock.

1. Remember that prevention is better than a cure. Be vigilant and pre-emptively arrest any slide you are starting to make toward career senescence. Catch yourself short when you start thinking:

  • “I probably don’t need to learn that.”
  • “I can blow off that meeting.”
  • “That wasn’t my best work, but it got the job done.”
  • “Gosh, I’m tired and it’s only 3:30.”

2. Get out there. Visit friendly peers and their practices. At every career stage you should be making at least one field trip per year to a practice that is just like yours, only better. Do not take these trips alone. Bring your management team. Compare notes on the flight or drive back home. Most importantly, make a list of new ideas you are committed to adopting and the deadline for each.

3. At a bare minimum, attend at least one national meeting a year. Do not just show up, sit in the back and passively absorb the lectures. Walk up to the podium after each talk and chat with the speakers. Then get out on the vendor floor to learn what is coming around the corner. When you head back home, make a list of priority improvements you are committed to implementing in the next 12 months.

4. Become a mentor. Teaching obliges you to be current, and it is absolutely impossible to teach without learning something yourself. The opportunities are abundant:

  • Take a promising manager under your wing and teach them more about the services they are managing, which will help you in the long run.
  • Mentor a young surgeon in your practice or community.
  • Teach at the local university’s ophthalmology department. Nothing helps old dogs get sparky quite so well as hanging out with the young dogs.
  • Establish continuing education programs for primary care physicians, optometrists, techs and others in your community.

5. Become a mentee. Find someone who is generous with their time and smarter than you, and put yourself in their hands. There is no dishonor in saying to a with-it colleague, “Susan, I’ve always admired your leading-edge mindset and your unwavering excitement about our profession. I feel as though I’ve lost my own edge professionally. Can I ask you to take a look at how I’m practicing today and help me with a tune-up?”

6. Remember to not just tune up your medical-surgical skills. If you have withdrawn from your practice’s business affairs at the same pace as you have withdrawn from clinical affairs, you are slipping backward twice. As a practice owner, you should be reading (and understanding) the following business documents:

  • Monthly financial statements.
  • Formal business cases written to substantiate major purchases and initiatives.
  • The annual budget as it undergoes serial drafts.
  • Key performance indicators and benchmarking reports.
  • Annual updates of the practice’s strategic business plan.
  • Any updates to the shareholder agreements.
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And you would be attending:

  • Board meetings and retreats.
  • All-hands staff meetings.
  • Selected staff training sessions.
  • Key hospital meetings.

7. If you are having a hard time getting motivated, remember that fear is a wonderfully effective motivator. Frighten yourself economically. Even if you think you are well over your financial finish line and all set for retirement, get a reality check from your CPA or fee-only financial planner every year or two. Ask them to forecast the odds of you outliving your money (assuming that the next 30 years are as volatile as some analysts believe). The answer you get may reset your ambitions and engagement.

8. Ask yourself: “Are my skills such that I would I trust myself to operate on me?” If the answer is “No,” then it may be time to either stop performing surgery or to retrain. Ask: “Are case volumes down because I’m senescing, or am I senescing as a surgeon because volumes are down?” Slow, progressive career senescence can lead to a self-reinforcing downward skills spiral: Less engagement leads to fewer cases, which in turn can make it hard to sharpen skills or substantiate retraining efforts.

9. Remember that the end of your surgical career is not necessarily the end of your professional career. Some of the most professionally happy surgeons I have met in the last 40 years are those in their emeritus years, who truly enjoy the relationships they have with each patient and the detective work of helping them feel and see better.

10. Finally, but perhaps more importantly than anything above, get fit. Between age 50 and 70, absent physical toning efforts, we lose about 30% of our strength. You need not become a gym rat. A few minutes of daily calisthenics and a brisk walk, combined with better eating habits and better sleep hygiene, will reset your biological clock and give you many added years of vigorous practice, if that is something you desire. If you lack the discipline to do this on your own, hire a personal trainer. Your staff will notice a new spring in your step. (And so will your romantic partner.)