Study: Patients may fare worse when treated by older doctors

Patients treated by older doctors have higher mortality rates than those treated by younger physicians, according to a new study.

Researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School found higher mortality rates for patients treated by physicians aged 60 or older than those aged 40 or younger, according to a study published in The BMJ. Mortality rates for inpatients within a month of admission were 12.1% compared to 10.8%, which accounted for one additional patient death per 77 treated for the older docs.

The results, which the researchers said were “modest yet clinically meaningful” in an announcement, are similar to the differences in death rates for patients with heart disease who are treated with the correct medications versus those given no medications.

Readmission rates were not linked to physician age, though healthcare costs were slightly higher for patients treated by older doctors, according to the study.

The researchers also found that the age of a physician didn’t impact mortality rates for those who treat large volumes of patients. This suggests, they conclude, that older doctors more removed from residency training may need regular refreshers to keep their clinical skills sharp if they treat relatively small numbers of patients.

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Additional training is especially key, they said, as technological innovations continue to drive change in the industry.

"Older physicians bring invaluable richness of knowledge and depth of experience, yet their clinical skills may begin to lag behind over time," Anupam Jena, an associate professor of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School and one of the study’s authors said in the announcement. "The results of our study suggest the critical importance of continuing medical education throughout a doctor's entire career, regardless of age and experience."

The team examined more than 730,000 Medicare inpatient records from between 2011 and 2014, encompassing nearly 19,000 hospitalists. They also compared that data to information from the American Hospital Association’s annual survey on potential factors like hospital infrastructure, staffing and service lines, along with data from professional physician network Doximity.