Financial Literacy in Healthcare: Are we missing something?

I know for me, the answer was a resounding YES!

My first career was Occupational Therapy. I had received a bachelor's degree in Psychology with a business minor. After that I took a year of pre-requisite classes and then right into a 3 year Master’s program for OT.

I was feeling pretty smart. I just had completed 8 years of college and received good grades throughout. I passed my board exams and was ready to go. I was ready to start a career helping people and getting paid pretty well while doing it. I was used to living as a starving student, so the paycheck shock was considerable. I had never seen a paycheck that big! Things were really looking bright. I was getting used to things like a salary and paid vacation. I had never had a job with either of those before. Much of the money that I had during school was dependent on tips and I had almost non-existent benefits no paid days off?

After graduation, with a spouse and kids already, it was time to relocate for a job and buy our first house. My wife was also a graduating OT student, so we were going from living on a combination of a very small paycheck and student loans to a dual income household. I remember that our first mortgage interest rate was 8.625%! By today’s standards, that’s outrageous. But, I also can remember my parents saying how “low” that was. It’s all about perspective. They had lived through the years when mortgages had double digit interest rates.

The next thing that kicked in 6 months after graduation was our student loans! Oh, boy did they kick in. When we started repayment, it was on a 10 year schedule. You didn’t have an option. Also, most of the loans were at 8.25% and a couple were close to 9%! Our student loan payments each month were 30% higher than our mortgage!! It took ¾ of our paychecks to just pay the mortgage and student loans. Although I always knew that someday I would have to pay them back, I never looked into what that payment would look like. I didn’t know how to figure that out. This was a time when the internet was new and we couldn’t just find a website to calculate loan payments. I didn’t even know what a financial calculator was at the time, no did I know how to use one.

Don’t get me wrong, we were able to make ends meet, but it took a lot of delaying gratification to set us on a financially stable course. I knew that I wanted to save for retirement. I was fortunate because I had good financial role modeling as a child. I still remember going into the meeting about the retirement plan at the hospital. I never felt so DUMB! I didn’t know what mutual funds were, I didn’t understand how to choose the investments. How much should I even put away? I took the prospectuses home (large disclosure documents that used to be all on paper). Hundreds of pages of reading later, all I knew for sure was if I was having trouble sleeping, all I had to do was crack open a prospectus and out go the lights!

I really felt like I should have understood investing better at that point. I have always been excited by math and spreadsheets (and yes, I get how dorky that is.) I can remember my dad coming home with an early spreadsheet that had a mortgage amortization schedule (the breakdown of principal and interest of all the payments). He showed me how paying a little more each month could shave off years of future payments. I was fascinated! Just a little discipline makes a huge difference in the long run.

Epiphany #1: If I’m having trouble, so are others

I thought to myself: if I, as someone geeks out of spreadsheets and numbers is having trouble knowing how to invest…what about the person that doesn’t like math? What about the person that had poor financial role models in childhood? What about all my colleagues in healthcare that went into the medical field to take care of others, but never learned how to take care of their own financial life?

Fast forward three years. Times were getting tough in the healthcare field. Medicare reimbursements and length of hospital stays had been dramatically reduced, sending ripples through all aspects and job titles in the hospital where I worked. Both my spouse and I ended up getting laid off. We went from making ends meet to going into debt further each month. I took a job in DME sales at a substantially lower pay rate and my spouse worked PRN when she could. It didn’t matter how tight I budgeted we were still falling behind each month.

At first, I looked for OT jobs, but for me, there was something missing. The biggest fear of mine at first was that I would start working as an OT again and then repeat the cycle of being downsized. Over the next 2 years, I was on the road a lot. I purchased a few educational courses on real estate investing, reinventing yourself, etc. I drove a lot for my job, so I used that time to my advantage to listen to hundreds of hours of CD’s. Over the course of those next 2 years, I did some real estate investing, but again, there was something missing for me.

Epiphany #2, what drives me:

I love helping people, like I did when I was an OT. Just like other health care professionals do. It’s rewarding to me to bring knowledge and skill to a problem and watch the improvement with proper treatment or intervention. Also, I wanted to work with the people that I enjoyed working with, not just the ones with the good insurance.

I found my empathy and drive to help people were driven by a personal life challenge. I was laid off, followed by my spouse being laid off at the same time. Then, two weeks after starting my career as a financial advisor, a family member received a life-changing diagnosis. Several years later, another family member received a life-changing diagnosis. Seeing their challenges firsthand was an invaluable window into a world of health care; it widened by circle of compassion. It taught me how much health care, trauma, counseling, and our financial futures are intertwined in meaningful ways.

Epiphany #3, looking forward, not back:

As an OT, I really enjoyed helping people, but I was always bothered with the feeling of being too late. I was always helping a patient or their family AFTER something bad happened. Nothing I could say or do could help them plan for the medical event, because it already happened. What if I was able to help people prepare for the future and possible speed bumps on their journey? As I tell my clients now…We all fall down at some point. If you have a cushion to fall on, you won’t get hurt as bad, but if you have no cushion, you’re going to be scraped up and broken and recovery is going to be much more difficult.

I found that being a financial advisor and developing financial plans for clients is a way that I can look forward and affect the future trajectory of my clients. Although I take a “protection first” mindset when developing a financial plan, we talk about the good things life has to bring as well as minimizing the impact of unexpected events.

Epiphany #4, it’s not just about the numbers:

My first career path was psychology. Since I was a little child I thought I was going to be a psychologist. I was on a local children’s show for my 5th birthday. This show was hosted by a woman that would talk to kids that were turning 5 in between playing cartoons for the viewing audience. When she went down the line asking kids what they wanted to be when they grow up, it went something like this: police officer, nurse, doctor, fire fighter, psychologist. What?? Yeah, that was me. I was pretty embarrassed when the adults laughed at my answer. When I was in high school, I had a couple of knee surgeries and was exposed to Physical Therapy and thought it was pretty cool. When I learned about OT, I thought it was a good mix of PT and Psychology, so that’s how I decided on grad school.

So where does the epiphany come in? It’s from many years of experience. From watching clients and how they react to market conditions, unexpected events, loss of function or loss of a family member. It’s from seeing widows struggling because their husband’s “always handled” the finances. It’s from seeing people age and seeing fear from lack of understanding. It’s from handing a tissue box across my desk as a client cries while talking about his deceased wife. It’s from clients telling me how much better they feel after talking to me. One of the best compliments that I ever received was when a client told me “you’re better than a sleeping pill.” She said that because I put her mind at ease and she was again able to sleep at night.

When we feel alone, as she did, as so many clients do at first, we can turn to education; we can turn to learning more and finding ways out of our situation. Educating ourselves to the world around us, including our cognitive biases, our privileges, our anxieties, and our fears is a rock-solid way to understand and control them. We learn from our environments and our understanding of challenges both unique and mutual. We can handle it.

All careers, not just healthcare ones, can use some performance level-ups, but during this time of pandemic, our core focus has changed to health and wellness and how it translates to the wider world. Tanya Peterson at Polish2Prosper.com, for example, is an Occupational Therapist and has made a wildly successful career out of helping healthcare professionals learn to adapt, align, and solve their challenges with the new ways of thinking. Healthcare that remains flexible and open to learning and evolution remains a strong path forward.

When we lift the often-unintended veil of ignorance, in any field, we can see the world more clearly and make better decisions for our future. The collective ignorance of health care providers can be fixed, made better, and can be passed on to others. A lack of knowledge shouldn’t be an impediment to achieving our goals, especially when that knowledge is within reach with just a few questions. If we learn by doing, then we should all work toward doing more to understand.