Are Older Doctors Putting Patients At Risk of Serious Harm?

A recent article in Kaiser Health News recently raised an interesting and somewhat controversial question: are older physicians still just as capable of treating patients as their younger counterparts?

The article cites several real examples of elderly impaired doctors. In one case, an 80-year-old vascular specialist performed surgery and went on a trip, forgetting that several of his patients were still in the hospital. Another surgeon suffering from Alzheimer’s is still performing surgeries because his colleagues feel bad asking him to retire.

These examples may sound extreme, but they are unfortunately more common than many patients may realize. Figures from the American Medical Association (AMA) reveal that approximately 42 percent of the 1 million physicians in the United States are over the age of 55. Another 21 percent are over the age of 65. A significant number of doctors are continuing to work long past retirement age, for a variety of professional and personal reasons.

Patients may mistakenly believe that the health and competence of the nation’s doctors are being strongly monitored and evaluated. However, that does not appear to true. Statistics show that 8,000 physicians suffering from dementia are still practicing. Many physicians don’t even have their own personal doctors to watch out for declining hearing, motor skills, vision problems, or symptoms of dementia.

Other industries have much stricter regulations for elderly employees. By law, commercial airline pilots are required to go for regular health screenings when they reach 40, and it is mandatory that they retire at 65. Unfortunately, there are no such legal requirements for doctors.

Although only a couple of experts contend that age alone should be the deciding factor in determining whether or not a doctor should practice medicine, several studies prove that physician skills tend to decline over time. According to a recent report, patient deaths in complicated surgeries were more common among surgeons aged 60+ than among their younger counterparts.

In order to resolve the issue in a systematic manner, a small but increasing number of hospitals, including Stanford Hospital and Clinics and the University of Virginia Health System recently implemented policies that call for physicians over a specific age (75 at Stanford and 70 at U-Va) to undergo cognitive and physical exams before renewing their privileges.

A small number of hospitals nationwide have implemented cognitive and physical testing policies for older physicians. For those that have, the decision seems to be paying off. However, far too many hospitals still ignore these requirements, so many patients are still at risk of harm. These hospitals claim that doctors need to be looked at as individuals, who are more than just a number. They argue that a one-size-fits-all rule is not wise for doctors.

However, while older doctors may have a lot of experience, they may not be providing patients with the latest treatment options. Most techniques that were taught decades ago have undergone significant changes.

There are some critics who say that screening and testing purely because of age is discriminatory. However, when patients lives are at stake, the utmost precautions need to be used. Some doctors simply should not be practicing medicine, in part because of their age and age-related conditions that they are suffering from.

If you were the victim of medical error by any physician, young or old, it is important to contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney immediately in order to protect your legal rights and get the compensation that you deserve.

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