Aging doctors may be more likely to commit medical malpractice

Many older people in Pittsburgh have been going to the same doctor for years. They value their doctor's deep knowledge of their medical history, as well as his or her wealth of experience based on decades of medical practice. But just as our reflexes and mental agility may decline as we age, so too can doctors become less competent as they enter their 60s, 70s and beyond. This can leave patients vulnerable to medical malpractice, either due to the doctor's diminished skills or outdated methods.

The problem goes beyond simple solutions like wearing bifocals while writing out a prescription. One geriatrician who evaluates physicians' competency estimates that around 8,000 doctors currently practicing are living with full-blown dementia. About a third of doctors in the U.S. do not have a personal physician of their own, meaning that serious conditions associated with aging may go undiagnosed until they become obvious -- or cause harm to a patient.

In the old days, one former emergency room physician said, younger doctors were reluctant to report mistakes made by respected older colleagues. Instead, they would quietly double-check the work of doctors who seemed to be slipping. But that system is far from foolproof. Another issue is that, while many older doctors keep up on modern medical innovations, some continue to largely practice as they were taught decades ago. This could lead to invasive, risky operations where surgical errors could cause serious damage.

A few hospitals have begun requiring physicians to undergo evaluations once they hit a certain age. This is fairly rare in the U.S., but could become more common as more doctors practice well past the traditional retirement age.

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

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