By Alfred Atanda with contributions from FlexMedStaff
Six years ago, my ex-wife and I got divorced. At the time, our two sons were 6 and 3, and I quickly realized that I needed to adjust my career to be more available to them. As a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon, I was immensely satisfied treating my patients. Still, my job as a traditional surgeon was incredibly time-consuming and offered very little in the way of autonomy and flexibility. I felt ashamed to speak openly about how I had thoughts about decreasing my clinical and educational responsibilities. More importantly, I didn’t know how to re-structure my clinical practice and maintain my lifestyle, not to mention new alimony and child support payments.
Then there was the inner conflict I was experiencing. I grew up in a Ghana immigrant family and was the youngest of seven children. There was a lot of pressure growing up regarding education and academic achievement. As the youngest child, I watched all of my older siblings attend college, graduate school, and start successful careers. I always wanted to fit in and make my family proud of me, which was a significant reason I went into medical school and eventually became an orthopaedic surgeon. Ultimately, my family was very proud of me and my career choice, which is what I thought I had always wanted. I had made it! I accomplished all my goals. What I did not foresee was that once you accomplish everything you might have wanted, you still may not be completely happy and fulfilled. Given my new life circumstances post-divorce, I knew that I had to make drastic changes to be able to live the life that I knew I deserved.
Several years ago, I dreamt of sitting on a packed bus with locked doors on a straight journey from point A to point B. I could see my destination on the horizon, and I was comfortable. All I had to do was sit there. On this journey, we passed a second bus that was less crowded, making multiple stops. Passengers were getting off at each stop and walking directly into the woods. There were no signs, guides, or paths for these passengers to follow. I thought to myself, how would these folks survive without even a map to get thru the woods? I started to question if I was on the correct bus and if I should follow them into the woods despite no clearly defined path.
In reality, the bus I was on was my career, and I was on a non-stop journey from medical school (point A) to retirement (point B). In this analogy, the locked doors on the bus symbolized the Golden handcuffs of my career. I could continue to sit comfortably on that bus or pull the cord for the bus to stop. I wanted to know what my career would be like if I pulled the cord, so I did. I wanted to follow my passion of becoming a healthcare innovator.
Oxford Languages defines Golden Handcuffs as a phrase that describes an employer’s efforts to discourage an employee from taking employment elsewhere by offering benefits, deferred payments, and ownership or stock options. In a sense, this is what my career choice had done to me. Yes, I was a well-paid and respected surgeon, but the only way I could be valuable was by using up my own time and energy. I wanted to have more control over how I provided value to patients and my organization. I also wanted to spend more time improving healthcare delivery for the patients we served. Eventually, I set up an agreement with my employer, so I could carve out some time to do telemedicine appointments and other digital health endeavors.
With more time from my primary role as a surgeon, I can pursue projects I would not have before. Becoming a healthcare innovator has not been easy, but it has been fun. Before the Pandemic, I launched my telemedicine group to help my patients and others. We are working to build a consultation network for pediatricians and emergency departments to connect with pediatric surgeons faster to expedite the care of all patients, not just mine. I have also been recently named the director of clinician well-being at my hospital. I work with our physician staff to improve efficiency and implement systems-level interventions to mitigate drivers of burnout and promote well-being. I have used this experience as a well-being expert to partner with other hospitals and private organizations to do speaking engagements and create digital content for healthcare workers and other professionals. It wasn’t until I re-imagined my traditional role as a surgeon that I could start to remove the golden handcuffs and see the light.
As more physicians take on non-traditional roles in medicine (ie: part-time, locums, direct contracting, etc.), there will be more of us seeking ways to diversify our interests and seek out alternative revenue streams. If you elect to cut off the golden handcuffs and have more time to pursue other projects, remember that getting started isn’t always easy. There is no easy path through the woods. It took me several years before my hard work garnered any traction. This included re-structuring my busy surgical practice, waking up two hours before my kids, and staying up two hours past the time my kids went to bed to work on my projects. Ultimately, I am glad that I pulled that cord on the bus to stop where I was in my career, make adjustments, and ensure that I had reached my fullest potential.