One of the common struggles I often come across in private medical practices is what to do when a senior physician wants to go part-time. In busy practices, this issue can be emotionally charged and I have even seen it lead to practice breakups.

Some practices simply take the position that either you work full-time, carry a full patient load, do surgery and take full on-call duties or there is no place for you in the practice. This can be a big mistake, especially if the senior physician seeking part-time status has a large patient or referring physician following.

In my experience, the key to successfully handling a physician’s transition to part-time status is having a clear documented policy in place well before the issue even arises. This takes the emotion out of the process and gives everyone fair notice of what to expect if and when they seek part-time status. Some of the key considerations that should go into a part-time policy are as follows:

• If the physician seeking part-time status is a shareholder or owner in the practice, consider whether going to part-time status should automatically require sale of his or her ownership interest back to the practice. Remember that being an owner in a business carries with it a lot of financial responsibility. Someone who is only part-time and eventually looking to move on to full retirement may be unwilling to accept these financial risks.

• The policy should spell out clearly the options for going to part-time status (e.g., no call, one last day in the office per week etc.), as well as the financial implications associated with that decision. The policy should address what will happen with the physician’s salary, bonus participation, benefits and other practice expenses such as malpractice insurance.

• The policy should spell out clearly that part-time status is of limited duration. Physicians should not have the expectation that they can drop to part-time status indefinitely; otherwise you could end up with a practice of all part-time physicians. Part-time status for senior physicians should be used as an interim step in the transition to full retirement. It is generally advisable to make termination of part-time status automatic at the end of a defined period of time so that the practice’s governing body is not forced to make a politically charged decision to either terminate part-time status or allow it to continue.

• Finally, it is critical to the success of any part-time policy that it be implemented consistently. While there can be some flexibility in implementation to account for practice needs at any given time, applying the policy in a discriminatory manner can create legal exposure for the practice and also undermine the policy’s effectiveness.