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Aging Doctors: Is There A Risk?

Comprehensive patient safety efforts include an endless list of focus areas-from the quality of medical devices used in the facility to the competence of the professionals engaged in high-risk procedures. There is no single cause of medical errors, and so the best efforts to tackle the problem leave no stone unturned.

Research into many of these issues offers helpful benchmarks to identify factors increasing and decreasing the risk of medical mistakes. For example, as you might expect, doctors who work longer hours (and get less sleep) are more likely to commit malpractice. Medical professionals who report less engagement with their colleagues (and worse communication) are also more likely to make a mistake.

What about age difference between doctors? Are older doctors more of a risk because of decreased physical and/or mental abilities? Or are younger, less experienced doctors a threat? From the evidence that is available now, there is no easy answers to these questions.

Ensuring Continued Competence

A recent MedPage Today dove into one part of this issue, exploring the increasing scrutiny that many elderly doctors face. The article shared real-life stories, like that of an 80-year old specialist who left on vacation without finding replacement doctors for his patients still in the hospital--one of them died. In another case a surgeon with Alzheimer’s continued to work on patients, because his colleagues could not get themselves to him that he needs to retire.

There is no end to stories about patients harmed by elderly doctors. Of course that is not to say that all elderly doctors are unfit to practice Instead, it is simply a reminder of the need for medical staff and hospital administrators to be incredibly vigilant about the risks, taking action to prevent harm when necessary.

The problem may actually be a growing one, because, as with the U.S. population as whole, the average physician age is increasing. Today about 21% of all doctors in the country are over the age of 65. Only five years ago that level was only 18%. Those familiar with the numbers explain that the increasing age of physicians will continue to rise for the next decade or two more.

One key concern is that there is almost nothing in the way of formal oversight to ensure the continuing competence of elderly doctors. This is far different than in some other professions. For example, commercial airline pilots must undergo health screenings starting at age 40 and are forced to retire at age 65. There is nothing similar at most hospitals, even though the risk of harm and complexity of the work is high.

The result of this lax oversight is that many elderly doctors are practicing who likely shouldn’t be. One professional who works on evaluations of medical professionals suggested that upwards of 8,000 doctors in the country are likely practicing medicine today even though they have dementia.

If you or a loved one has suffered a serious or life-altering injury that you suspect was caused by malpractice, contact the medical malpractice lawyers at our firm to share your story and learn about your legal options.

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