Mandatory Screenings for Senior Surgeons?

In recent years, more adults past traditional retirement age have elected to remain in the workforce, having discovered they are not ready to slow down or pass the torch to the next generation quite yet.  Older adults are living longer and often in better health but in some cases, remaining in a career such as medicine can put patients at risk when older doctors, especially surgeons, may not want to acknowledge their physical or cognitive abilities have started to deteriorate. 

It’s a difficult position for hospitals administrators who must balance patient health and safety with agism against older practitioners.  According to a recent New York Times report, nearly 25 percent of physicians in the United States were older than 65 in 2015; and with a growing older population, this trend is likely to continue.  But doctors still operating on patients as their eyesight, reflexes, dexterity and physical strength begins to decline with advancing years is cause for concern.  Some hospitals have implemented mandatory screenings for doctors over the age of 70, but the practice is far from universal. 

While many older surgeons may still be mentally sharp at 70 or even 80, it becomes questionable if they have the physical stamina during long and delicate surgeries.  A small number of older doctors may need a nudge to acknowledge when it’s time to put down the scalpel but it’s been difficult to demand mandatory physical or cognitive testing from highly respected professionals.   A mandatory retirement age could be descriminative, but mandatory screenings would help identify surgeons who should perform only short surgeries, focus their careers on teaching or simply retire from practice. 

The American College of Surgeons made an official statement on the aging surgeon in January 2016, acknowledging that surgeons, like all older adults, are subject to age-related decline in physical and cognitive skills.  This decline varies widely between seniors, but by volunteering for a confidential baseline physical exam, older doctors can protect themselves and their patients.  

Retiring from medicine is something many doctors, whose career has been a central part of their identity, can find difficult.  Implementing programs that assess the performance of older doctors is a practice that’s time has come; getting hospitals and practitioners on board is proving to be difficult.