Physician Career Change: Beware the “Sunk Cost Fallacy”.

June-Physician Sunk Cost Fallacy

After years of education and training the meaning and purpose of medicine deeply embeds itself in the “DNA” of physicians. Burnout was already at an all-time high in physicians prior to the pandemic, and has only worsened since its onset. For some physicians, despite their best efforts, their desire to practice medicine, particularly in the realm of direct patient care, may have definitively changed. Commitment, dedication and specialized knowledge are required for the practice of medicine, yet the very linear training in medicine can be a hindrance when there is a need to embrace the flexibility and creativity for a career change in increasingly non-linear world. In addition, what comes into play is the “sunk cost fallacy, whereby individuals continue to pursue a particular endeavor because of prior investments of money, time, emotion, beliefs, and effort even if that course of action is no longer reasonable, tenable or desired. This is a common discussion in business, but has broad applicability in other realms including to career change for physicians. The fallacy is letting these past costs and decisions dictate the future and the way forward. In fact, the very word “sunk” has a pejorative connotation that implies that there is no learning or value to be extracted from the prior investments. Moving on from the grip of sunk costs is neither naïve or facile, but a necessary process for learning from the past and optimizing the future. Consider the following questions as powerful initiators and tools for career change?

  • What are your “hard” and soft skills?
  • What opportunities could you be missing by staying stuck in your “sunk costs?
  • What new information do you now have that might have influenced your choice of career?
  • Are you equating change with quitting? What would be different if change was actually the courageous, wise and positive decision?
  • What if “Being right” is keeping you stuck?
  • What decisions have you made in the past that involved letting go of “sunk costs”?
  • What would you say to someone else in your situation?
  • Are you making your own decision or do you have a very noisy “peanut gallery?
  • What could be your new cost/benefit ratio for life and work?

In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.

Warren Buffet

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but building the new.


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