Physician Evaluation

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Should Aging Doctors Be Routinely Evaluated?

By Sandra G. Boodman, Kaiser Health News

This 2009 photo shows the 83-year-old doctor examining the photographers's son. (Laura4Smith:Flickr)

This 2009 photo shows the 83-year-old doctor examining the photographers's son. (Laura4Smith:Flickr)

A distinguished vascular specialist in his 80s performs surgery, then goes on vacation, forgetting he has patients in the hospital; one subsequently dies because no doctor was overseeing his care. An internist who suffered a stroke gets lost going from one exam room to another in his own office. A beloved general surgeon with Alzheimer’s disease continues to assist in operations because hospital officials don’t have the heart to tell him to retire.

These are real-life examples, provided by an expert who evaluates impaired physicians. They exemplify an emotionally charged issue that is attracting the attention of patient safety experts and hospital administrators: how to ensure that older doctors are competent to treat patients.

Norcross estimates that about 8,000 doctors with full-blown dementia are practicing medicine.

About 42 percent of the nation’s one million physicians are older than 55 — and 21 percent are older than 65, according to the American Medical Association, up from 35 percent and 18 percent, respectively, in 2006. Their ranks are expected to increase as many work past the traditional retirement age of 65. Continue reading