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Are hospitals, licensing boards making progress regarding the fitness of older physicians?

It may come as a shock for people to learn that commercial airline pilots must retire by the age of 65 or that FBI agents must also turn in their retirement papers by the age of 57. However, this makes sense when you consider that these are both very demanding positions, and that the mental acuity and physical skill they require can decline with age.

What doesn't make sense, however, is that physicians, whom we also trust with our lives, typically aren't subject to any kind of age-related guidelines. Specifically, the majority of older physicians don't have to submit to periodic physical or cognitive exams, or even take tests measuring their ability to keep up with advancements in their chosen field.

"The public thinks that physicians' health and competence is being vigorously monitored and assessed. It isn't" said Dr. William Norcross, 64, director of a physician assessment program at the University of California, San Diego.

This becomes all the more concerning when you consider the following statistic from the American Medical Association: Of the nearly one million physicians currently practicing in the United States, at least 42 percent are older than 55 and 21 percent are older than 65.

In fact, experts are predicting these numbers will soon grow higher as many older physicians choose to forgo retirement in their mid-60s either for personal or financial reasons.

Interestingly, more hospitals around the country are recognizing this issue and instituting systems in which all physicians who reach a certain age -- typically in the 70s -- must submit to mental and/or physical screenings as a condition to renewing their hospital privileges.

Such programs, they argue, not only serve to protect patients but also avoid making the critical mistake of arbitrarily discounting the abilities of skilled medical professionals just because of their age.

Other hospitals are taking the exact opposite approach and not implementing any sort of mental or physical screenings for older physicians. Here, the rationale is that a particular physician's fitness to practice will naturally be addressed in the course of any discussions about renewing their hospital privileges every two years or so.

"In medicine, I think you need to look at people individually," said the vice president of a large East Coast hospital network. "To just put a number there and say, 'You need to be looked at more closely' because of age is not justified."

Regardless of the approach that hospitals or medical licensing boards take, it's imperative that both they and the physicians they work with never lose sight of that fact that patient safety always comes first.

Please visit our main website to learn more about hospital negligence.

Source: The Washington Post, "As doctors grow older, hospitals begin requiring them to prove they're still fit," Sandra Boodman, Dec. 10, 2012

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