For Janet Young, M.D., an emergency medicine physician, it made sense to relocate. The large group practice where she worked had offered her an opportunity at its Chicago location that she knew would benefit her professionally in the long term. So in 2008, she packed her bags, and along with her two preschool-aged children and an au pair, moved from Oakland, California, to Chicago. Her husband remained in California a while longer.
"I didn’t know anyone in the Midwest. I’d never even been there," Young says.
The move would not be a long-term engagement. Less than four years later, Young and her family relocated again, back to Oakland.
Young is hardly alone in this relocation exercise. New physicians who train far from family and friends often return home once their training is complete. And more and more physicians are choosing to relocate even after a few years in practice. A 2016 report issued by health care data analysts SK&A found that nearly 14 percent of health care providers made some type of professional move within the past 12 months - keeping pace with what the U.S. Census Bureau says is the percentage of Americans who relocate each year.
It’s possible that new physicians relocate in even higher numbers. In 2011, Today’s Hospitalist stated that as many as 70 percent of physicians change jobs within their first two years. Jeff Hinds, president of the physician consulting firm Premier Physician Agency, believes this trend may be because "early in their careers, most young physicians do not know how to fully evaluate their job options, nor at that point, even know which practice settings or locations are most conducive to meeting their professional and personal goals." But relocating closer to family, or even moving for more opportunity, like Young, can also explain the frequent exoduses.
As anyone who has ever moved can tell you, however, relocating is not easy. That’s why it deserves careful consideration. Your experience, of course, will be unique, but their suggestions may provide you with a road map to make your relocation a bit easier.
First, understand the consequences of leaving your current job. "Physicians need an adequate exit strategy before making the decision to relocate," says Hinds. "They need to review their contracts to fully understand the termination process and potential risks."
It’s possible you’ll have to return at least a portion (if not all) of any signing bonus if you leave before your contract term is up. "Responsibility for purchasing malpractice tail coverage could also be tied to completion of the full contract term," Hinds adds.
Any of these factors may play a part in your decision to leave - or at least in your timeline to relocate. "Seeking legal advice to help determine your ideal exit strategy is very important," says Hinds.
In other words, "Don’t Skype the interview," says Edie Webber, owner of Pinnacle Relocation Services. "You really have to go and visit in person."
That’s the only way you will pick up on what Webber calls intangibles - the feel and culture of a place and the people who live and work there. "A place should make you feel welcomed and wanted," says Webber, and that’s especially true of your potential workplace. "You’re going to spend a lot of time here with these people, so make sure you’ll feel comfortable before you choose to relocate," she says.
A visit is also the best way to learn about the community where you hope to live. "Learn about the schools, about any work opportunities for your spouse if he or she will also be looking for a position, and seek out information about any cultural or recreational activities that you and your family enjoy," says Hinds.
And just because you have lived in the area before doesn’t mean you can skip this step, says Ron Davis, senior vice president of MD Preferred Services, a website that helps physicians find professionals like realtors, attorneys and accountants. "Even if you lived or grew up there, unless you’ve made recent trips back to the area, don’t assume the place you left will look the same." As he points out, training can take a while, and if you’ve added a fellowship on top of that, chances are the place has changed. "You need to visit it again if you haven’t seen it in a while," he says.
Ying Hui Low, M.D., an anesthesiologist who recently moved from North Carolina where she trained to Lebanon, New Hampshire, suggests bringing along the important people in your life to visit a new location. "You want people to visit you, so it lets them become comfortable with the area, too," she says.
Relocating involves a lot of moving parts happening simultaneously. Once you have the move scheduled on your calendar, you’ll need to establish a timeline so the transition will be smooth.
"One of the first things to do is apply for your state license," says Alexander Zaslavsky, M.D., who relocated from a hospitalist job in New York City to a new position in Maryland - then, when his employer opened a new location in New Jersey, he moved again. "The licensure process can take up to four months or longer," he explains. "That’s lost time and income if you delay the process. Start early."
This is also a good time to start your paperwork. Eleanor Hertzler, recruitment coordinator for Patient First, says that three months is generally a good rule of thumb for the credentialing process. Credentialing and licensing timing vary from state to state.
"The process is very state-specific, so do some research for the state you’re moving to and plan accordingly," she says.
"You should also notify your current employer two to three months in advance," says Jeffrey Tsai, M.D., a regional director with CEP America who has relocated twice - from Chicago to Atlanta and then home to California. "At least let them know you’re thinking about a move."
Your professional liability carrier will also need to know of your move, and, if you’re currently in practice, don’t forget to notify the Drug Enforcement Agency, any vendors you work with and of course, your patients.
You’ll also need to find a place to live. Allow about a month for this step, Tsai says.
Other factors to include in your timeline: Time to locate a job for a working spouse and time to check out schools. "A lot of this can be done online," says Debra Phairas, president of Practice & Liability Consultants. "But of course you and your spouse will want to visit any potential employers and schools in person."
Young offers one more "must" for your timeline if you have children. "I was lucky that my au pair moved with me, but if you’re relocating, establish your childcare option in advance," she says.
Finally, consult with movers, realtors and recruiters. These experts can help you fine-tune your timeline.
Yes, you’ve visited the area, but now is the time to explore it.
Each time Tsai moved, he took a month of vacation, he says. He used part of that time to travel. "When you’re working, you don’t have time for many vacations," he says. But that month also allowed him to explore the area thoroughly, to look for a place to live, and to unpack.
Low says she also vacationed in the area prior to relocating. "After all my exams were over, I visited the area and the hospital and took a look around both," she says. "Check out the amenities, things that are important to your lifestyle."
By staying in the area, you’ll not only become familiar with various neighborhoods but also gain a better idea of the real estate market and what kind of properties might be available in your budget. "You can [also] determine commute times," says Low. Just because a house appears to be close to the hospital doesn’t mean you’ll be able to get there faster if traffic in that area is heavy at the times you’ll travel, Low explains.
Hertzler says when she works with relocating physicians, she gives them a list that’s filled with helpful resources. "As recruiters, we don’t endorse any outside business, but we give our physicians referrals for things they may not think about, like mechanics, vets and dentists," she says. If you’re checking out an area, you might want to put together your own list of frequently used services, then look to see what’s available in the areas where you’ll spend most of your time.
Finding somewhere to live, of course, may be the biggest challenge facing the relocating physician.
Zaslavsky suggests renting an apartment or small home for a year. "Make sure this is the place you want to be before buying a house," he says. "You may find you don’t like the job or the area, then what?"
Hertzler agrees. "If you’re not familiar with the area, it’s a good idea to rent a place for six months to a year to see if this is where you want to live. You may get here and decide you like another part of town better. Unless you know the area, I’d suggest renting when you first arrive."
One practical, economical option is to follow Young’s path. "I rented a furnished apartment for a year," she says. That way, there was no need to move furniture twice when she decided to move somewhere else.
Webber, however, says that, depending on the market, it can be much easier and less stressful to find a home ahead of time. "In tight markets, shopping and making offers from your hotel can create a lot of stress. If you can arrange a home shopping tour ahead of time, before the move, then the contract to close can be done during your absence," she says.
"If you rent first with the intention of buying a home in a year, the home may actually cost you more," Webber continues. If, for example, you relocate to an area where there is a demand for housing, which is often the case in cities, chances are prices will rise over the year - while your options narrow.
If you’re selling a home before you move, Webber also cautions you not to rely on "off-the-cuff" estimates of your selling price. "Don’t assume you’re going to make a good profit from the sale of your house," she says. Sellers often underestimate their costs, in addition to any buyer’s expenses they may have to pay. "Get accurate numbers so you know what you will net when you sell," she says.
While you’re gathering information, it’s also a good idea to sit down and prepare a projection for all the expenses you’ll run into when relocating, says Hinds. In addition to moving costs and buying and selling a home, there will also be costs for trips to the area and for licensure. "Also consider costs of daycare and even the costs of living in the new location," he says.
Now that you’ve visited the area, established where you’ll live, seen to your paperwork and any childcare needs, it’s time for the move itself.
Low said the move, for her, was easy. "I didn’t have any furniture or big items to move." But for many, a move can be stressful.
"Changing location is listed as one of life’s biggest stress factors," says Webber. "Hiring experts can help."
She suggests you talk to your employer’s human resources department and ask for referrals. Hinds agrees: "Most hospitals have realtor partners they work with and can recommend," he says. Phairas adds that office and group practice managers can also refer you to realtors, movers and other experts in the area.
Young, however, took a more self-directed approach: "I Googled realtors in the area," she says. And Tsai credits his wife for taking on most of the house-hunting chores. For Zaslavsky, "My wife and I were a team. We looked at homes together."
"Most physicians are experts in their field, but novices when it comes to relocating," Davis says. "And health care is way behind corporate America in successfully relocating people." Hospitals can only do so much. "They may refer you to a realtor and tell you where to get three bids for movers, then you’re on your own," he says. But relocating involves much more. "A consultant or relocating company can bundle services like mortgage contacts, financial advisors and attorneys," he says.
Will you be reimbursed for your relocation expenses? It depends on the employer and the location. Hertzler says employers generally help relocating physicians by putting together a benefit package that will ease moving costs. Whether that’s a signing bonus or a stipend depends on each situation.
Tsai says his employer did not help him with moving expenses. "But our company does offer a loan to assist with the move or it sometimes offers a signing bonus," he says. A typical amount of the loan or bonus is $10,000 - which seems to be the going rate for relocation expenses when they are offered, adds Hinds.
Says Webber: "You never know whether or not you’ll be reimbursed unless you ask."
By now, you’ve found a home, unpacked your boxes, and are starting to know your way around the hospital and maybe around your new community as well. But don’t stop there.
"This is the time to network," says Phairas. Go to hospital meetings to meet your colleagues, and to medical and specialty society meetings to meet other physicians in the area, she says. These physicians can become friends or referrals, and they can also let you know about restaurants, parks, hiking trails and other things to do in the community in your area of interest, or maybe those of your spouse or children.
"Networking is important, and not just from a business perspective," she says.
Hertzler says Patient First often arranges a dinner where relocating physicians can meet with other physicians from the local Patient First urgent care centers. "It’s a time to meet colleagues and their families, and to learn more about the workplace and the area," she says.
It’s also important at this time to keep the happiness of your family in mind. You may be delighted with the new location and job, but if your spouse or children are having a miserable time of it, you may have to re-assess your priorities.
"Relocating can be a real culture shock for children," says Davis. "It’s why your family’s needs and feelings must be considered before you actually make the move."
Young says she gave herself a timeline. "I told myself and I told my family that we’ll give the location and the job two years. If after that time we weren’t happy, we’d move back. I think it’s really important to have an exit strategy like that, an escape route," she says.
Even more essential, however, is taking time to decide if the move is right for you. "Before you move, you have to sit down and ask yourself why you’re making this move," she says. "If you’re not sure why you’ve put yourself and your family through this, it’s not likely to work." But you can’t let fear of the unknown and the occasional unpleasantness stop you either. "Don’t be afraid to relocate," says Young. "There’s no advancement without risk. You’ll become a better person for it."