Youth vs. Experience: Are you safer when seen by older doctors?

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).

Perhaps all that experience isn’t so great after all. A recent study finds that patients are more likely to die when treated by doctors over the age of 60.

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.

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Terra Marquette

Terra is a Denver-area freelance writer, editor and researcher. In her free time, she creates playlists for every mood.

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  1. Nobody will understand a thing until he becomes ill, not diagnosed/misdiagnosed, feeling hopeless, ignored, googling his own
    symptoms, until ONE doctor in a big city will do the miracle and bring you back to life.

  2. junk science…..enough said. stupid premise & stupid conclusion no critical thinking done in this study

  3. Although I personally would feel quite comfortable with a 60 year old physician, the key is ‘over 60.’ That includes 70, 75 and no…I do not want to be treated for a life threatening illness by a 75 year old.
    For some reason (maybe fear of getting older ourselves) we as a society have decided to ignore the fact that people deteriorate over time. I am 50. My body does not respond the way it did when I was 25, and taking Calculus at 48 was a struggle that I would not have endured at 18. A typical (not every person alive, so you can save the comments about how your 95 year old great grandma is ‘sharp as a tack’) sign of aging is memory loss, belligerence, etc…I think we need to grow up and admit that getting older does effect us. That does not mean people become useless, it just means we are not necessarily at our optimum anymore. It is not a slander. It is just the fact of getting older.

    1. A lot of that deterioration is due to diet and lifestyle choices. There are a lot of sharp-minded old foggies out there.

  4. This was limited to “hospitalists” which are not “hospital based internists” these are usually the ER staff, ER doctors who have to act quickly, are overwhelmed, make fast judgements. Patients who are rushed to the ER can have anything from a bad cold to a major trauma, and its an area where burnout is so high that I’m surprised they found any doctors over 60 who still work in this field – which is not the same as a general internist.
    Also – by limiting it to medicare patients who are over 60, you are dealing with an age group that has higher incidence of serious health issues. Why not just say patients who are over 60 are more likely to die than patients under 40. Sheesh. And this is Harvard doing the study.

  5. I have heard younger doctors tell patients to “go on and give their families relief.” Also, Medicare refuses to treat older people unless the doctor overrides the decision. Younger doctors don’t see the need to lengthen life.

  6. This may be true, but I suspect the reason is that their patients are also older and often have been seeing the same family doctor for decades. We old codgers do croak with greater frequency than do younger people. Just in my lifetime the average lifespan has gone from 65 to perhaps 85-87. The older a doctor is the more accumulated experience and knowledge he has. Being an old fart myself I have no illusions of living much longer. I look at every day as a gift from God and modern medicine.

  7. very stupid analysis.Many people have the same doctor and carry them into their old age, hence why they and the doctor are older when God forbid they pass.

  8. Older doctors have been in practice a long time and so have older patients. Older patients die more. Mystery solved.

  9. FAKE Study. Dear Obama Insurance Companies – try hiding your tracks better next time. This is too easy to look up and debunk. Let me guess: The next study will show that Doctors from 3rd world countries without a U.S. License ALSO are better doctors. Their long term plan is to H1B doctors because they are cheaper.

  10. Flawed for sure. I am one of those “older, experienced” physicians and have seen enough long, slow painful deaths not to subject patients to many of the “newer” technologies that prolong an agonizing existence which is not in best interest of patient. However, makes a family (that sees them once a month in the nursing home) feel a lot better that they told the doctor (by phone at 2am) to “do everything”. Some of us know when to stop.

    1. “…”newer” technologies that prolong an agonizing existence…”

      How about a few examples of these ‘newer’ technologies to avoid? Are they preventative or do they cure?

  11. And don’t forget about the even greater difference between a Doctor and a Physician’s Assistant (PA) that often has 98% of the authority of a full fledged doctor.


  13. “Researchers at Harvard wanted to know how well physicians perform as they age. ”

    ‘Performance’ may not be the key issue here. Older doctors may be able to ‘perform’ adequately but might not keep up as well with technological innovation – new drugs, new treatments, etc. There are exceptions to this, of course – some people are receptive to new things at any age. Young doctors coming out of med school are likely to be up-to-date with the latest technology whereas older ones are more likely to do as they have been doing for decades.

      1. At least he is sane. I wouldn’t make a pimple on a doctor’s butt, but even I can see you’re a damned fruitcake.

  14. Me I’m 68 and I’ve lived in Asia and Europe. Dr’s over there are 180 degrees on the other side in Practice compared to the U.S.

    I never take any drugs of any kind from them because I know how to take care of myself.

    Quit relying on Dr’s because most are Drug addicts Quacks and couldn’t can’t heal a toothache.

    The Almighty Father gave Man Herbs for Healing and to keep you from aging so fast. Research them.

    Oh yea and stay away from alcohol, it causes all kind of diseases!

    1. I also am sixty eight. Older doctors are in what is the medical mafia, they have no choice. The only meds I take is a super B complex, four thousand mills of vitamin c, tumeric. The only saving grace in medicine today is in the emergency room and trauma care. All else is putting you in danger. I would be dead by now if I took what they wanted me to. And do not let them suck you into a colonoscopy, there are other choices. Medicine is changing wake up everyone.

      1. A little fish oil wouldn’t hurt, vitamin d, also q10. On that turmeric, watch out, google “maoi cheese” because turmeric is a type-2 maoi – makes your BP go up for about twelve hours.

      2. Yeah, don’t remove colon cancer before it metastasizes, a funeral after a couple years of cancer is a fun alternative treatment.

      3. I detox my colon four times a year for the last ten years now. Truly watch watch what I eat, do not drink, no drugs ever. It’s not your colon that makes you sick it is the filth you call food that does it and the doctor knows it. Also there are safer ways to detect cancer in the bowel. There are doctors out there and powerful herb solutions. Medicine is changing that is why so many doctors who do not align with Big Pharma are mysteriously dying. Google it.

  15. Here’s how this study ought to read if you want the truth:
    “Patients Over 60 More Likely To Die When Treated By a Doctor.”

  16. Well seasoned, more technically experienced mechanics get the more challenging repairs to do. I supposed if you took a raw look at the data without any analysis or wisdom about the matter you could say transmissions fail more often with older heavy line mechanics than with the younger less experience mechanics who get only light service jobs to do.

  17. As the wife of a cancer patient (who passed away due to drug dosage error) and a retired critical care nurse, the medical errors my husband and I witnessed during his 3 year cancer season were staggering. Medical errors were committed by physicians; nurses; pharmacy; nurse assistants… Any attempt on our part to notify anyone of errors committed so that no one else would have to experience what we did were completely invalidated and ignored.
    Medical care in the USA, even with so many miraculous technological advances, is third world due to the sloppy, lazy work ethic in a majority of medical personnel.
    I, personally, have completely stopped getting check ups or medical care whatsoever from physicians, PAs, Nurse Practitioners. I don’t want to witness or be the recipient of inept medical personnel.

    1. Good riddance – as a physician who works 80 hours a week I don’t expect thanks but I don’t respect arrogant nonsense of a single unaduticated rant without reply.

      1. As a U.S. Dr you would starve to death in Europe trying to practice. The People would bad mouth you, call you a Quack trying to give them Big Pharma Drugs…

        There a much better way with no life threatening Side Effects.

      2. And doctors are paid to see like 10 patients a day , then go home, No pay for seeing extras. When your sick, they schedule you for next week. Need a new hip, wait a year or two. MRI, scheduled, in 4 months while your tumor grows to inoperable size. That’s ok, here’s a bunch of morphine, go die quietly, if you don’t like that then here’s a nice cyanide tab, swallow it and your pain and suffering are gone. Yeah, Love EuroMed Inc. Why do you think all the Eurotrash politicians, Canadian Politicians, are in luxury VIP accommodations at Johns Hopkins, UCLA Medical Center and others?

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