CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — If you could choose your doctor, would you prefer youth or experience? You might pick the fresh-faced physician if you consider that patients in hospital settings are more likely to die when treated by doctors who are at least 60 years old, according to a recent study.
Researchers at Harvard wanted to know how well physicians perform as they age. They looked at the records of 730,000 Medicare patients treated between 2011 and 2014 by more than 18,800 hospital-based internists (hospitalists).
Patient deaths rose gradually as physicians aged, but the biggest gap —1.3 percentage points —showed up between hospitalists 40 and younger and those 60 and older. This means one additional death for every 77 patients admitted by a doctor who is 60 or older versus a doctor who is 40 or younger.
Study senior investigator Anupam Jena, an associate professor of Health Care Policy at the university and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, says this outcome raises some serious concerns.
“It is comparable to the difference in death rates observed between patients at high risk for heart disease who are treated with proper heart medications and those who receive none,” she explains in a Harvard Medical School release.
There is a bright spot, however, in all this aging gloom and doom. When physicians carry heavy caseloads, physician age is not a factor in patient mortality. Researchers believe that caring for large numbers of patients keeps a doctor’s skill set strong.
Older doctors may have knowledge that can only be gained by experience, but they cannot just rest on their laurels. They have to keep up with the rapid changes that come with new research and technology.
“The results of our study suggest the critical importance of continuing medical education throughout a doctor’s entire career, regardless of age and experience,” Jena says.
Researchers say this study is too limited to draw any final conclusions about how older physicians perform on the job. They would like to look into what else might be influencing the higher mortality rates in patients cared for by older doctors.
Perhaps, in answer to the first question posed, your best bet is to choose the busiest doctor.
The study’s findings were published in The BMJ.