Safety comes with surgeons' age

Contrary to popular belief, more experience doesn't always mean better performance. Surgeons between the ages of 35 and 50 provide the safest care compared with their older or younger colleagues, according to a new study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Previous studies have found that surgeons reach peak performance about 10 years in their specialty, according to the Press Association. To find out, researchers at the University of Lyon in France looked at patient complications from thyroid gland removals--a procedure generally carried out in the same way by all surgeons--and found that surgeons who were 35 to 50 years old with five to 20 years of experience since graduation had better outcomes than those who were younger or older, according to BBC News.

Not surprisingly, younger surgeons with fewer years of experience had poorer outcomes. However, surgeons with 20 years or more of practice had a three times higher risk of a patient suffering recurrent laryngeal nerve palsy (leading to severe hoarseness) and more than seven times the risk of hypoparathyroidism (damage to glands), the Press Association reported.

Older physicians didn't fare worse because of case complexity with "harder-to-treat" patients, as one might imagine, according to the BBC. Researchers acknowledged that poor performance of very experienced physicians should be explored more. They said it could have to do older physicians taking on more surgeries (although daily schedules didn't affect outcomes), resulting in mental fatigue and burnout, according to Discovery News.

"Our findings also suggest that a surgeon cannot achieve or maintain top performance passively by accumulating experience," the study states.

The average age of the surgeons was 41 and they had an average of 10 years of experience, according to a BMJ press release.

For more information:
- read the BBC News article
- here's the Press Association article
- read Discovery News article
- check out the study abstract
- here's the BMJ press release

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