How should hospitals handle aging surgeons?

Federal regulations require commercial pilots to retire at age 65 but no such rule exists for medical professionals, who are also trusted with people’s lives on a daily basis.

The New York Times published a piece on this complex issue on Feb. 1, noting a handful of hospitals have implemented mandatory screenings of medical professionals older than 70 to tease out which ones should retire, reduce their workloads or transition to roles outside of patient care. But far more institutions don’t have any formal processes to evaluate when it’s time for physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other healthcare providers to take these steps.

“The public believes we police ourselves as a profession,” Mark Katlic, MD, a thoracic surgeon who founded a program at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore to test the competence of older surgeons, told the Times. “We don’t, at least not very well.”

Katlic said he is particularly concerned about older surgeons, who have to use miniscule instruments to grab tiny blood vessels in operations that can extend several hours or longer.

“It’s probably a small percentage of surgeons in their 70s who have trouble, maybe 5 or 10 percent,” Katlic said. “But they’re the ones we want to identify.”

A mandatory retirement age could keep these physicians from performing operations, but it could also violate discrimination laws and exacerbate physician shortages—especially in rural communities—by pushing out perfectly capable doctors, the Times pointed out.

If such a law doesn’t get any traction, it will remain up to hospitals to determine whether they want to implement their own “late-career practitioner policies.”

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