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Aging Doctors May Impair Patient Safety

No one doubts that physicians gain valuable experience as the years go by. But, in some instances, patients, and increasingly a number of hospitals and medical practices too, are questioning whether some aging doctors may be endangering patient safety. This may be particularly true for some doctors whose advancing age has led to their own serious health problems, or who have neglected their own health while attempting to take care of their patients.

In some instances, a doctor may no longer be really fit to practice anymore, yet may be loathe to retire. Stories are told about surgeons experiencing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, doctors who suffer a stroke and grow forgetful about the fact that they have post-surgery patients in the hospital, and general practitioners who need to be reminded of what it was they were doing in their office, or what a patient asked them minutes before.

Doctors are only human. They get sick, they get disabled, physically and/or mentally or both, and they are subject to becoming dependent on alcohol, prescription medication, or illegal drugs. Many of these things can impair their ability to adequately serve the needs of their patients and can expose patients to an increased risk of medical malpractice, sometimes of the most egregious variety.

In the past, all too often, some say, other medical personnel were extremely reticent to even suggest to even an octogenarian doctor that perhaps it was time to close up his practice and devote his remaining days to reading and playing with his grandchildren.

Today, with an aging physician population, this issue is no longer a rare or minor matter. A full 21 percent of the U.S.’s doctors are over the age of 65, and around 42 percent of them are over 55. These figures increased rapidly over the past six years from their previous levels of 18 percent and 35 percent respectively, and the trend is continuing. While there may have been a time when many viewed 65 as an expected retirement age, a combination of personal and financial reasons have left that expectation behind, and the social acceptance of older people continuing to work has increased.

In some professions, such as airline pilots for commercial lines, mandatory medical screenings kick in at a designated age (40 for pilots) and mandatory retirement looms ahead at age 65 based on expected declines in physical abilities required to ensure airplane safety. In law enforcement, similar considerations mandate an even earlier 57 year old retirement age for the agents of the FBI.

Some are questioning whether some such restrictions are now needed for doctors, too. If not a mandatory retirement age, which is now generally disfavored, at least some form of mandatory medical screening for practicing physicians to make sure that their own health problems are not becoming an obstacle to patient care.

Mandatory continuing medical education is, in fact required to keep doctors up to date. But even there, some say that the courses provided are too easy to get credit for without showing that actual knowledge was acquired.

One estimate is that as many as 8,000 doctors still actively practicing today in this country are suffering from dementia, and there is really little in the way of safeguards or monitoring to prevent them from continuing to do so.