Our local daily paper, like most other print newspapers, is on its last legs. But I read it faithfully for the obituaries, and to see how my former patients are doing on their school sports teams. Of course, there is always the smattering of motor vehicle accident reports to keep me reading.

One doesn’t have to be an insurance adjuster or an actuary to realize that motor vehicle accident fatalities cluster into two groups: teenagers and older folks (70 plus). One group falls victim to inexperience and a delusional sense of immortality. Those in the other group are losing their ability to sense their environment and respond with sufficient speed. One group makes poor decisions. The other makes them too slowly.

Because my mother died in her early 60s and my father never had a driver’s license, I never faced the difficult task of telling my aging parents that they were too old to drive. But I have heard from some of my friends of how difficult it was to ask Mom and Dad to give up their car keys.

The American Medical Association announced recently that they have to decided to take on a similar challenge by agreeing to “spearhead an effort to create competency guidelines for assessing whether older physicians remain able to provide safe and effective care for patients” (“Aging MDs Prompt Call for Competency Tests at AMA Meeting,” Associated Press, June 8, 2015). Prompted by the reality that one in four physicians in this country is over the age of 65 years, the AMA is beginning to talk about the issue and formulate plans to convene a variety of councils and work groups.

I’m sure there are some older physicians whose clinical skills have eroded with age to a point that they pose a significant threat to the safety of their patients, but I don’t think the situation warrants a full-court press by the AMA or anyone else for that matter.

First, I suspect that most physicians who continue to practice after they turn 70 years are not doing so because they need the money. That might be true 10-15 years from now when today’s young physicians are facing retirement while they are still recovering from the monstrous educational debts they incurred in their 20s. At present, though, I suspect that most physicians continue to practice because they enjoy what they do. I have to believe that a physician whose primary motivation is the joy of seeing patients is, in general, going to be doing a good job of it – and his or her patients probably know it and appreciate it.

Second, we already have in place (or should have) systems for identifying and dealing with physicians who are practicing substandard care for variety of reasons, such as substance abuse, financial malfeasance, inadequate training, or outright incompetence. Do we really need another layer of screening for older physicians? It feels like just another example of profiling. For example, does the Transportation Security Administration need to strip search every male with a dark complexion named Hassan?

The problem is that in many situations our safety nets for identifying and addressing incompetent physicians have too many holes in them. One of the reasons for this inadequacy is the unofficial code of silence that physicians have followed for years. Unless a fellow physician’s behavior is three orders of magnitude beyond the pale, many of us feel uncomfortable about approaching him or her or even lodging an anonymous report to the state board of licensure.

Of course, as physicians age some will lose critical clinical skills. On the other hand, with age many older physicians have gained perspectives on health, life, and death that their younger colleagues need to hear. We don’t need to single out older physicians for closer scrutiny. We simply have to improve our current surveillance systems and attitudes for physicians of all ages. If anyone wants to look more closely at how older physicians practice, the first question to ask should not be “What are they doing wrong?” but “What are these folks doing right that allows them to continue to enjoy practicing medicine at age 75?”

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “Coping with a Picky Eater.”


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