Are Older Doctors Worse Than Younger Ones?

If you’re a patient, would you trust older doctors, or younger ones? Perhaps you’d pick an older one because you think they’re more seasoned and knowledgeable. Or, maybe you’d choose a younger one because you think they’re more up to date with modern treatments. Deciding between doctors can be tricky, but a recent BMJ study has elucidated a key difference in performance between younger and older doctors.

The study—led by Dr. Anupam Jena of Harvard Medical School—took a random sample of Medicare data for more than 700,000 hospital admissions from 2011 to 2014, and found that doctors age 50 and above have higher patient mortality rates than doctors under age 50. The results are summarized in the table below:

Doctor age range Patient mortality rate
40 and under 10.8%
40-49 11.1%
50-59 11.3%
60 and above 12.1%

The differences are small, but they’re meaningful. The study controlled for a number of factors, including the possibility that the sickest patients were assigned to older physicians on any given day.

Jena suggests that older doctors have worse outcomes because they’re less up to date with the newest medical technologies. “There’s a fear that as doctors get further away from residency, they might be out of touch with new technologies and treatments,” Jena told STAT news. Studies support Jena’s claim—a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that over half of their sample reported decreasing performance with increasing age.

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Jena did find an interesting twist in his results—doctors who had a large patient load did not experience higher patient mortality rates with age. Instead, patient mortality rates were pretty steady across all ages of doctors with large patient loads.

So, what does this mean? It’s possible that the large patient loads allow—and maybe even force—doctors of all ages to sharpen their clinical skills and become more aware of new treatments. Meanwhile, older physicians with low or medium patient loads may see a decline in their clinical skills and may not be as inclined to keep up with the newest technologies.

This is just one explanation of the trend, and there’s no way we can validate it without further study. Also, Jena’s study only includes Medicare patients, and it would fascinating to see whether the trend he saw holds true for patients of all ages—of course, this also requires continued research. Regardless, Jena’s study gives patients something to consider when choosing a physician.

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Imaz Athar

Imaz Athar is a senior undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, double majoring in Neuroscience and Sociology. He aspires to become a physician and plans on attending medical school in Fall 2017. Imaz fell in love with the art of writing at a young age and is currently the Publisher of Pitt's undergraduate-run science magazine The Pitt Pulse. When he's not writing or keeping up with classes, Imaz enjoys running, playing basketball, watching Empire, singing (in the shower), and listening to all kinds of music.