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Study: Older Doctors Put More Patients at Risk

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Study: Older Doctors Put More Patients at Risk

Erica Block

Updated: June 13, 2017    Published: May 23, 2017

Older doctors put more patients at risk

A recent study from Harvard Medical School shows that higher patient mortality rates are associated with older doctors.

Do patients fare better when they’re treated by younger physicians? Or do older doctors with years of experience under their scrubs provide superior care? A new study out of Harvard Medical School found that within the same hospital, patients treated by older physicians had significantly higher rates of mortality than those of patients cared for by younger physicians.

But are patients really better off with Doogie Howser than an internist who resembles their grandpa? Research suggests that is the case. After examining data on Medicare patient outcomes among 700,000 hospital admissions from 2011 to 2014, the authors of the HMS study noticed a direct relationship emerging: the older the doctor, the higher the patient mortality rate. Similar studies investigating whether a surgeon’s abilities dull with age have reached a similar conclusion. “As surgeons age, there is a small but detectable diminishment in the quality of their work,” according to Slate. The story checks out. By most assessments, surgeons reach their professional prime during middle age.

That is not to say there aren’t plenty of competent, older physicians who benefit from years of experience. But the data nonetheless is concerning for people seeking healthcare in the U.S., where 42 percent of all physicians are older than 55 and 21 percent are senior citizens. 

Some in the medical community have proposed periodically screening practicing physicians for dementia or loss of competence, both to ensure quality of care and protect against potential cases of negligence. Airline pilots have to retire at 65, after all. Judges in most U.S. states face mandatory retirement when they turn 70. Still, physicians and patient safety experts agree that many doctors deliver excellent care well into their golden years; most reject the idea of mandating physician retirement at a certain age. 

As baby boomers continue to age, medical associations and hospital credentialing committees are likely to confront the question of physician age and competence with increasing frequency. And while the relationship between physician age and patient outcomes must be studied on a larger scale in order to assess exactly why older physicians have worse patient outcomes, exploring how clinical volumes impact practice patterns and clinical skills among older physicians could provide further insight. 

Physician Age By Gender in the U.S. 

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