HEALTH

Old Doctors Seem To Be Worse At Keeping Patients Alive

Experience may not translate to better care, according to a large study of Medicare patients

HEALTH
Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
May 16, 2017 at 6:30 PM ET

The grizzled wisdom that comes with age may only go so far in medicine, a new study published Tuesday suggests. If anything, older doctors could actually be worse at keeping their hospital patients alive than their fresh-faced counterparts.

Researchers examined the medical records of over 700,000 Medicare patients who had been hospitalized from 2011 to 2014. They then looked at how often these patients died within a month after their admission, and whether the likelihood differed depending on the age of the doctor who mostly took care of them. Specifically comparing doctors who worked within the same hospital, they found the higher the age bracket they belonged to, the less likely their patient would make it through, according to the study published in the journal BMJ.

The differences were most stark when comparing doctors under the age of 40 to those over 60. Overall, 11.1 percent of patients had died by day 30. But those treated by doctors under 40 were 11 percent less likely to die than those treated by doctors over 60. For context, the authors explained the size of that life-saving effect, if real, would be comparable to giving people at risk for cardiovascular disease preventative statins or beta-blockers to those who had suffered a heart attack.

That indicates “our observed difference in mortality is not only statistically significant but arguably clinically significant,” the authors wrote.

The study doesn’t directly prove that a doctor’s age or years of experience can hamper their patient’s care, and the authors caution their findings are meant to be “exploratory.” But it also isn’t the first bit of research hinting at that connection. Older doctors, the authors speculated, might find it hard to keep up to date on the latest medical knowledge and technologies. They might be also less likely to stick to the rules.

The link wasn’t universal, though. Age didn’t seem to affect the odds of patients being readmitted to the hospital, or substantially budge how money it took for them to be treated. And patients treated by doctors with a high volume of patients, meaning they treated over 200 hospital admissions within a year, also weren’t any more or less likely to die based on their doctor’s age.

That last finding, the authors said, may mean doctors can keep their wits about them simply by keeping themselves plenty busy. Another workaround could involve ensuring that older doctors spend more time sharpening their skills via more continuing medical education courses. Currently, there’s an ongoing debate about whether these courses should be as regularly required as they are now.

“Although our study did not analyze the effects of current such policies in the US, it suggests that continuing medical education of physicians could be important and that continual assessment of outcomes might be useful,” the authors wrote.