Commentary

Age competency exams for physicians – yes or no?


 

Dr. Jauhar: The EEOC filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Yale medical staff that argued that Yale’s plan to do vision testing and neurocognitive screening – there may be a physical exam also – constitutes age discrimination because it’s reserved for doctors over the age of 70. Those are the physicians who are most likely to have cognitive impairment.

We have rules already for impaired physicians who are, for example, addicted to illicit drugs or have alcohol abuse. We already have some of those measures in place. This is focused on cognitive impairment in aging physicians because cognitive impairment is an issue that arises with aging. We have to be clear about that.

Most younger physicians will not have measurable cognitive impairment that would impair their ability to practice. To force young physicians (for example, physicians in their forties) to undergo such screening, all in the name of preventing age discrimination, doesn’t strike me as being a good use of resources. They’re more likely to be false positives, as you know from Bayesian statistics. When you have low pretest probability, you’re more likely to get false positives.

How are we going to screen hundreds of thousands of physicians? We have to make a choice about the group that really is more likely to benefit from such screening. Very few hospitals are addressing this issue and it’s going to become more important.

Dr. Glatter: Surgeons have been particularly active in pushing for age-based screening. In 2016, the American College of Surgeons started making surgeons at age 65-70 undergo voluntary health and neurocognitive assessments, and encouraged physicians to disclose any concerning findings as part of their professional obligation, which is pretty impressive in my mind.

Surgeons’ skill set is quite demanding physically and technically. That the Society of Surgical Chairs took it upon themselves to institute this is pretty telling.

Dr. Jauhar: The overall society called for screening, but then in a separate survey of surgical chairs, the idea was advanced that we should have mandatory retirement. Now, I don’t particularly agree with that.

I’ve seen it, where you have the aging surgeon who was a star in their day, and no one wants to say anything when their skills have visibly degraded, and no one wants to carry that torch and tell them that they need to retire. What happens is people whisper, and unfortunately, bad outcomes have to occur before people tend to get involved, and that’s what I’m trying to prevent.

Dr. Glatter: The question is whether older physicians have worse patient outcomes. The evidence is inconclusive, but studies have shown higher mortality rates for cardiovascular surgeons in terms of the procedures that they do. On the flip side, there are also higher mortality rates for GI surgery performed by younger surgeons. It’s a mixed bag.

Dr. Jauhar: For specialized surgery, you need the accrual of a certain amount of experience. The optimal age is about 60, because they’ve seen many things and they’ve seen complications. They don’t have a hand tremor yet so they’re still functioning well, and they’ve accrued a lot of experience. We have to be smart about who we screen.

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