Health Care

Patients fare worse with older doctors, study finds

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Could your doctor’s age affect how you fare during treatment? Perhaps — though the impact is fairly small, according to a new study.

A team of researchers led by Dr. Anupam Jena of Harvard Medical School looked at a random sample of Medicare data for more than 700,000 hospital admissions from 2011 to 2014. The patients received treatment from whichever physicians happened to be on duty at the time of their admission.

When the team looked up the ages of the nearly 19,000 doctors who handled those Medicare patients, a trend emerged: The older the doctor, the higher the patient mortality rate.

For physicians under the age of 40, patients’ mortality rate was 10.8 percent. That edged up to just over 11 percent for patients treated by doctors in their forties.

The patient mortality rate was 11.3 percent for physicians aged 50-59, and rose above 12 percent for physicians over 60.

These findings appeared Tuesday in the British Medical Journal.

Why might older doctors have worse outcomes? “There’s a fear that as doctors get further away from residency, they might be out of touch with new technologies and treatments,” said Jena.

The study drew praise from Rebecca Mary Myerson, a health economist at the University of Southern California who was not involved with the research. She said the analysis appropriately controlled for a number of variables — including the possibility that the sickest patients were assigned to the most experienced physicians on call at the hospital on any given day.

One interesting twist in the results: Doctors who saw a large number of patients did not seem to lose any skills as they aged. Indeed, patient mortality rates were fairly constant among high-volume physicians of all ages.

Jena suggested that seeing a lot of patients might have the effect of keeping doctors on top of advances in treatment.

“It could be that high-volume doctors are experiencing no decrease in their skills or expertise,” he said. “Maybe low- to medium-volume doctors just don’t see enough patients to have to keep up. Or maybe those doctors are less knowledgeable, so they see fewer patients. It’s not clear what comes first.”

Dr. Jack Sobel, a Detroit physician not affiliated with the study, said he is not surprised by the findings.

“It’s not that clinical skills deteriorate,” he said. “People over the age of 65 are just not as familiar with the new methods. That’s what gives younger doctors the edge. It’s access to newer technology, and knowing the newer drugs.”

Sobel, who is 74, said he tries to keep his skills current by reading five medical journals a day, in between treating patients and teaching students at Wayne State University, where he is dean of the medical school.

“I happen to be addicted to keeping up to date,” he said. “But I’m not the norm.”