Aging Doctors Not Being Screened for Mental Impairment

On behalf of Brown & Crouppen, P.C. posted in Medical Malpractice on Wednesday, January 26, 2011

As people in the U.S. live longer, the old rule of thumb of retiring at age 65 no longer applies in many professions, including medicine. Doctors are routinely practicing into their 70s and even 80s. Their long experience can be a valuable asset in their patients’ care. However, as a recent New York Times article points out, doctors are as susceptible to age-related mental diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Despite the risk posed to patients, only 5 to 10 percent of hospitals have protocols in place to screen older doctors for competence, according to a doctor who advices hospitals and health care companies.

State medical boards have also been slow to recognize the problem. Often, the article says, a doctor’s incompetence is not addressed until he or she is brought before the board for disciplinary action, by which time a patient has already been harmed by the doctor’s malpractice. Boards for specialists have members renew their certification every seven to 10 years, but often include grandfather clauses that exclude older doctors from the requirement.

Dementia and other illnesses associated with old age can heavily affect a doctor’s ability to properly treat his or her patients. Mental impairments can make it difficult to perform delicate surgeries, or react quickly in a fast-paced emergency room. It can become difficult to learn new techniques or medical information, or remember proper dosing for medications.

The first people to notice that an older doctor’s lowered ability are often his or her colleagues. Many fellow doctors are reluctant to confront older colleagues, out of respect, and instead cover for the aging doctor’s mistakes by monitoring his or her work or checking on patient files.

But that is not always enough to prevent harm to patients. The Times story gives the example of a 78-year-old surgeon in California who operated on a patient who later developed a pulmonary embolism. Despite calls from nurses, the doctor never responded to the emergency and the patient died. The surgeon continued to practice for four more years, until an examination showed that he had serious cognitive and motor impairments.

Source: The New York Times, “As Doctors Age, Worries About Their Ability Grow,” Laurie Tarkan, January 24, 2011

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