There’s an adage that says with age comes wisdom. Common sense would suggest we’d rather have an older doctor, with a lifetime of experience, care for our illness. New research indicates the opposite is true. A study published in BMJ Quality and Safety and led by Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, a former chief medical officer, shows doctors over the age of 55 are six times more likely to engender concern over their job performance than their younger counterparts.
The study, performed in the UK from 2001-2012, gathered data from Britain’s National Clinical Assessment Service (NCAS). The NCAS is an autonomous agency which receives and investigates claims of physician malfeasance. These reports come from patients or the doctors themselves. Donaldson found less than one percent of physicians are reported yearly to the NCAS. Those under the age of 35 account for roughly 1.8 referrals per 1,000. For those over 55, the number skyrockets to 10.5 referrals per 1,000.
The study uncovered factors besides age pointing to the likelihood of a doctor being reported to the NCAS. Male doctors are reported twice as often as female doctors. Those in the fields of obstetrics, gynecology and psychiatry also generate more concern. Also, doctors trained outside of the UK were more likely to be reported to the NCAS than their British-trained counterparts.
Donaldson asserts the data is more than mere patient bias. Older doctors, more prone to illness and infirmity, often struggle to keep up with best clinical practices. The same can be said for foreign doctors, who may have trouble with language. Quick rehabilitation and re-training, however, can help mitigate any risk—perceived or real—to patient safety.
The aged may have wisdom, but when it comes to doctors at least, it would seem we prefer the vitality of youth.