When it comes to delivering healthcare, how old is too old? That's the question patient safety experts and hospital administrators are asking, as they try to ensure older doctors are competent to treat patients, The Washington Post and Kaiser Health News reported.
The answer could affect the looming physician shortage, especially in rural areas, where doctors and their patients are both aging, according to the Associated Press. In Nebraska alone, the number of rural doctors older than 65 has jumped by 78 percent during the past five years.
Nationwide, about 42 percent of the 1 million physicians are older than 55 and 21 percent are older than 65.
Part of the problem is that older physicians can often come with "Fred Flintstone care," using outdated thinking, skills and treatment, the Post and KHN noted. What's more alarming is that by some estimates, about 8,000 doctors with full-blown dementia are practicing medicine.
So more hospitals are taking a page from the aviation industry and requiring doctors over a certain age to undergo physical and cognitive evaluations to renew their medical staff privileges.
In fact, between 5 percent and 10 percent of hospitals have adopted age-based medical staff policies, according to Jonathan Burroughs, physician executive and CEO of The Burroughs Healthcare Consulting Network, FierceHealthcare previously reported.
Despite aims of increased patient safety, such policies raise questions about age discrimination against older doctors.
Some hospital administrators oppose setting a hard-and-fast number for mandatory competency tests, blasting such policies as unnecessarily heavy-handed.
"In medicine, I think you need to look at people individually," David Mayer, 59, vice president of quality and safety at MedStarHealth told the Post and KHN. "To just put a number there and say, 'You need to be looked at more closely' because of age is not justified."