An Overview: Aging Doctors and Patient Safety
One-third of the nation’s physicians and medical professionals are over the age of 65, and the proportion is expected to grow in coming years. While many medical professionals are able to sustain their skills and sharpness of mind into their seventies and later, there will undoubtedly be some who struggle with cognitive impairment and skill degeneration. As all humans are, aging doctors are susceptible to dementia, stroke, or other conditions that can arise in old age. Medical professionals with mild impairments may not be aware that they even have a problem. Unfortunately, even though medical professionals are supposed to report colleagues’ unsafe practices and bad behavior, many are hesitant to confront their fellow doctors. A 2005 study found that the rate of disciplinary action was 6.6% for doctors out of medical school for 40 years, compared with 1.3% for those only out for 10 years. In 2006, a study found that in complicated operations, patients’ mortality rates were higher when the surgeon was 60 or older.
A Need for Reform: Avoiding Medical Malpractice
Patient advocates observe that commercial pilots, who are also responsible for the safety of others, must retire at age 65 and undergo physical and mental exams every six months starting at age 40. However, there are few safeguards to protect patients from medical professionals who should not be practicing any longer. Some experts believe that doctors should have cognitive and physical screening once they reach 65 or 70 years of age.
Dr. Jonathan Burroughs, a consultant with the Greeley Company (a company that advises hospitals and health care companies), says 5 to 10 percent of hospitals in the Unites States are beginning to address the issue of aging doctors more systematically. At Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, hospital policy requires that when doctors turn 70, they must undergo cognitive and physical exams that assess the skills specific to their specialty. Unfortunately, the other 90 to 95 percent of hospitals are unwilling to address the issue of aging doctors. This is concerning, especially since increasing financial pressures are making doctors more reluctant to retire.