Commentary

Age competency exams for physicians – yes or no?


 

There’s a learning curve in surgery. By no means am I arguing that younger surgeons are better surgeons. I would say that there’s probably a tipping point where once you get past a certain age and physical deterioration starts to take effect, that can overshadow the accrual of cognitive and surgical experience. We have to balance those things.

I would say neurocognitive screening and vision testing are important, but exactly what do you measure? How much of a hand tremor would constitute a risk? These things have to be figured out. I just want doctors to be leading the charge here and not have this imposed by bureaucrats.

Dr. Glatter: I was reading that some doctors have had these exams administered and they can really pass cognitive aspects of the exam, but there have been nuances in the actual practicing of medicine, day-to-day functioning, which they’re not good at.

Someone made a comment that the only way to know if a doctor can do well in practice is to observe their practice and observe them taking care of patients. In other words, you can game the system and pass the cognitive exam in some form but then have a problem practicing medicine.

Dr. Jauhar: Ultimately, outcomes have to be measured. We can’t adopt such a granular approach for every aging physician. There has to be some sort of screening that maybe raises a red flag and then hospitals and department chairs need to investigate further. What are the outcomes? What are people saying in the operating room? I think the screening is just that; it’s a way of opening the door to further investigation, but it’s not a witch hunt.

I have the highest respect for older physicians, and I learn from them every day, honestly, especially in my field (cardiology), because some of the older physicians can hear and see things on physical exam that I didn’t even know existed. There’s much to be learned from them.

This is not intended to be a witch hunt or to try to get rid of older physicians – by any means. We want to avoid some of the outcomes that I read about in the New York Times comments section. It’s not fair to our patients not to do at least some sort of screening to prevent those kinds of mistakes.

Dr. Glatter: I wanted to go back to data from Yale between October 2016 and January 2019, where 141 Yale clinicians who ranged in age from 69 to 92 years completed cognitive assessments. Of those, 18 clinicians, or about 13% of those tested, demonstrated cognitive deficits that were “deemed likely to impair their ability to practice medicine independently.” That’s telling. These are subtleties, but they’re important to identify. I would love to get your comment on that.

Dr. Jauhar: It’s in keeping with what we know about the proportion of our older citizens who have cognitive impairment. About 10% have dementia and about 20% have at least mild cognitive impairment. That’s in keeping with what we know, and this was a general screening.

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