Commentary

Age competency exams for physicians – yes or no?


 

Dr. Jauhar: Obviously, the hand skills that are important for ophthalmological surgery certainly aren’t required for office-based psychological counseling, for example. We have to be smart about how we assess impairment.

You describe the spectrum of actions. On the one hand, there’s mandatory retirement at the age of 65 or 70 years. We know that commercial pilots are mandated to essentially retire at 65, and air-traffic controllers must retire in their late 50s.

We know that there’s a large amount of variability in competence. There are internists in their 80s with whom I’ve worked, and I’m absolutely wowed by their experience and judgment. There are new medical resident graduates who don’t really seem to have the requisite level of competence that would make me feel comfortable to have them as my doctor or a doctor for a member of my family.

To mandate retirement, I think the AMA is absolutely right. To not call for any kind of competency testing, to me, seems equally unwise. Because at the end of the day, you have to balance individual physician needs or wants to continue practicing with patient safety. I haven’t really come across too many physicians who say, “There’s absolutely no need for a competency testing.”

We have to meet somewhere in the middle. The middle is either voluntary cognitive competency testing or mandatory. I would argue that, because we know that as the brain changes we have cognitive impairment, but we’re not always aware that we need help, mandatory testing is the way.

One other thing that you mentioned was about having the solution imposed on us. You and I are doctors. We deal with bureaucracy. We deal with poorly thought-out solutions to issues in health care that make our lives that much more difficult. I don’t want that solution imposed on us by some outside agency. I think we need to figure this out within medicine and figure out the right way of doing it.

The AMA is on board with this. They haven’t called for mandatory testing, but they have said that if testing were to occur, these are the guidelines. The guidelines are fair and equitable, not too time-consuming, transparent, and not punitive. If someone comes out and doesn’t test well, we shouldn’t force them out of the profession. We can find ways to use their experience to help train younger doctors, for example.

Dr. Glatter: I wanted to segue to an area where there has been some challenge to the legality of these mandatory types of age restrictions and imposing the exams as well. There’s been a lawsuit as well by the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], on behalf of Yale. Basically, there’s been a concern that ageism is part of what’s going on. Yale now screens their providers beginning at age 70, and they have a program. UCSD [University of California, San Diego] has a program in place. Obviously, these institutions are looking at it. This is a very small part of the overall picture.

Health care systems overall, we’re talking about a fraction of them in the country are really addressing the issue of competency exams. The question is, where do we go from here? How do we get engagement or adoption and get physicians as a whole to embrace this concept?

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