4 considerations before asking aging surgeons to give up the scalpel

Are your aging surgeons' skill levels still up to par?

The topic is often a minefield as it involves issues of surgeon dignity and autonomy, physician-nurse relationships, patient care quality and evolving care standards, according to Medscape. Consider the following factors before making a determination:

Current trends among surgeons: In 2010, more than 40 percent of actively practicing physicians in the United States were 55 or older, up nearly 3 percent from 2007, and the figure was higher than that in most surgical specialties. The specialties with the highest number of over-55 practitioners were thoracic surgery (51.6 percent), orthopedic surgery (49.7 percent) and urology (49.3 percent), Medscape reports.

Mandatory age restrictions: No healthcare providers are subject to a national mandatory retirement age, in keeping with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, according to the article; however, individual providers and organizations have discussed increasing scrutiny for older practitioners, such as Stanford University Medical Center, which in September 2012 implemented a policy requiring physical and mental screenings every two years for medical staff aged 75 or older.

Other factors unrelated to age influencing performance: Although an analysis of about 460,000 Medicare surgical patients found no correlation between surgeon age and operative risk for most procedures, some complex procedures had higher mortality rates for surgeons over 60 than for surgeons 41-50. A 2005 review of over 60 studies found that a correlation between age and negative outcomes may not necessarily be due to surgeon age but rather to older physicians' resistance to more modern tools and techniques, according to the article.

Red flags: Several skills necessary for surgery often decline with age, including motor skills, visuospatial ability and cognitive function. Some providers have developed initiatives to recognize early warning signs, such as the Aging Surgeon Program at Sinai Hospital in Maryland, which incorporates interviews, testing and physical exams to catch problems early, Medscape reports.

Many nurses are also continuing to work into old age, in large part due to economic uncertainty, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

To learn more:
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