Sunday, December 16, 2012

Are Old Doctors Always Fit to Practice?

As doctors grow older, hospitals begin requiring them to prove they’re still fit

By Sandra G. Boodman | Kaiser Health News,December 10, 2012
  • Many doctors practice medicine into their 70s. But, how old is too old? Patient safety experts and hospital administrators worry about aging doctors.
A distinguished vascular specialist in his 80s performs surgery, then goes on vacation, forgetting he has patients in the hospital; one subsequently dies because no doctor was overseeing his care. An internist who suffered a stroke gets lost going from one exam room to another in his own office. A beloved general surgeon with Alzheimer’s disease continues to assist in operations because hospital officials don’t have the heart to tell him to retire.
These real-life examples, provided by an expert who evaluates impaired physicians, exemplify an emotionally charged issue that is attracting the attention of patient safety experts and hospital administrators: how to ensure that older doctors are competent to treat patients.
About 42 percent of the nation’s 1 million physicians are older than 55 and 21 percent are older than 65, according to the American Medical Association, up from 35 percent and 18 percent, respectively, in 2006. Their ranks are expected to increase as many work past the traditional retirement age of 65, for reasons both personal and financial.
Many older doctors remain sharp, their skills up-to-date and their judgment honed by years of experience. Peter Carmel, the AMA’s immediate past president, a 75-year-old pediatric neurosurgeon in New Jersey, recently wrote about “going full tilt.”
Unlike commercial airline pilots, who by law must undergo regular health screenings starting at age 40 and must retire at 65 — or FBI agents, whose mandatory retirement age is 57 — doctors are subject to no such rules. Nor are any formal evaluations required to ensure the continued competence of physicians, many of whom trained decades ago. Most states require continuing education credits to retain a medical license, but, as Ann Weinacker, chief of the medical staff at Stanford Hospital and Clinics in California, observed, “you can sleep through a session, and if you sign your name, you’ll get credit.”

My opinion:
It's a good thing someone finally brought this up.  I do agree that many old doctors may still be fit to practice, but it seems as if other employers are more likely to let their employees go if their age hinders their work.  Should hospitals start employing more stringent rules for doctors to stay in the business?  I also think this might be a reason why the nation will be so short on doctors in the future - I had no idea that 42% of physicians are older than 55.  If many of them die, and if hospitals start forcing more of them to retire, how do we replace them?  Feel free to comment.

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