Does your doctor's age matter?

Group of doctors

A new study in The BMJ found that patients treated by older physicians had a higher mortality rate than patients cared for by those who were younger.

However, the new study took the severity of the patient's condition into account, and still found a higher chance of death with doctors aged 60 or above.

The team looked at data on over 700,000 hospital admissions of patients cared for by almost 19,000 physicians between 2011 and 2014, analyzing records for 30-day mortality, readmissions and costs of care.

Jena: Two reasons. First, we are broadly interested in understanding how care provided by individual physicians influences patient outcomes, and the particular understanding of how individual physician characteristics such as sex, where the physician trained, and their age relate to patient outcomes and cost of care. With doctors aged 40 to 49, mortality rates inched up to 11.1%, then to 11.3% with doctors 50 to 59, and 12.1% with doctors aged 60 or above. What they found was a clear rise in mortality rates with age - although the results of the study do not prove younger doctors are better.

This suggests that treating large numbers of patients could be "protective" of clinical skills.

However, the team added, the results warrant a more in-depth analysis to tease out precisely what factors may be contributing to the higher mortality seen among patients treated by older physicians. However, patient death rates crept up at a regular pace as physicians got older.

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"And our findings suggest that the impact of newer technology is evolving over time, and keeping up with that kind of technology is larger than the impact of experience that the older doctors are accumulating over time". Researchers only considered elderly Medicare patients and doctors in the U.S.

"Residency training sharpens the clinical skills of newly minted physicians because it exposes them to a great number of cases, but as physicians get farther away from residency their clinical skill may begin to decline somewhat", Yusuke Tsugawa, researcher in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said.

Professor Anupam Jena, the co-author, explained, "Older physicians bring invaluable richness of knowledge and depth of experience, yet their clinical skills may begin to lag behind over time". "The results of our study suggest the critical importance of continuing medical education throughout a doctor's entire career, regardless of age and experience".

Linda Aiken, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research, noted in an accompanying journal editorial that "patients should be more-informed consumers in selecting a hospital" rather than a specific doctor.

The study's authors note, though, that these findings shouldn't deter people from seeing older doctors. "Therefore, they may be more up-to-date when they start providing care".

When it comes to medical care, does older equal wiser - and better?

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