Old doctors who continue to treat patients

Did you know that one-third of the country’s physicians are over the age of 65?

That’s right, there’s a good chance that your doctor is on Medicare.  That’s a concern, because physicians aren’t immune to the ails of aging, and are just as prone as patients to succumb to the effects of Parkinson’s or various types of dementias.

Not comforting if you’re about to undergo an operation, for instance.  And absolutely frightening when you consider baby-boomers and newly insured patients will flood our health system in the coming years.

An eye-opening piece from the New York Times highlights the trend.  It’s up to doctors and medical societies to report doctors who aren’t able to proficiently perform, but few do.  According to the data, the rate of disciplinary action for physicians out of school 40 years was 6.6%.

Various tactics to ensure competency have been slow to take off.  Requiring all doctors to re-certify, for instance, isn’t working, since the vast majority of  doctors practicing are “grandfathered” into not being required to take the test.

Compare that to, say, airline pilots:

Patient advocates note that commercial pilots, who are also responsible for the safety of others, must retire at age 65 and must undergo physical and mental exams every six months starting at 40. Yet “the profession of medicine has never really had an organized way to measure physician competency,” said Diane Pinakiewicz, president of the nonprofit National Patient Safety Foundation. “We need to be systematically and comprehensively evaluating physicians on some sort of periodic basis.”

Hospitals have been slow to confront the issue, not wishing to alienate the medical staff.  Instead of requiring all doctors to re-certify, which is an arduous and time-consuming task, perhaps asking doctors over a certain age to undergo neuropsychological testing may be an option.

If a physician is found to have deficits, adjustments to his schedule can be made to better conform to his abilities.  It beats the alternative, where medical licenses are revoked when patients are hurt by doctors no longer able to properly function.

 is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of KevinMD.com, also on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

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