When is a doctor too old?

I’m visiting my parents for a week. They live in a retirement /transitional living center in Florida where my mother resides in the memory center (she is an Alzheimer’s patient) and my dad lives in the same building in a beautiful apartment. It allows them to spend time together each day, and it’s remarkable how well my mother is doing with my dad’s constant, quality attention…. (can you tell how wonderful I think their situation is?)….

Last night we enjoyed dinner with some friends and one part of the conversation floored me, although it should not have taken me by surprise at all. The conversation took place with Dr. W, a former surgeon who retired as Chief of Surgery from a large hospital in the mid-west. What I so very much appreciated about Dr. W is that he gets it — he gets the problems that can be posed by egos — and in this case we were discussing surgeons.

I’ll share his thoughts with you because they are truly a heads up for anyone who needs any type of surgery. And if we really want to be sharp patients, we can extrapolate them to any doctor we might turn to.

Dr. W told me that toward the end of his career, he was tapped to become the Chief of Surgery. He told them he would accept the appointment — but only if they agreed to his stipulation that he would no longer perform any surgery. He had decided that he had reached an age where he could no longer be sure patients were safe in his hands.

He explained to me that for him to decide to no longer perform surgery — on his own — was unusual. He then recounted a handful of stories about how various surgeons had been ousted from their positions, always confrontational, always problematic, always because there had been concerns about their work. That was his polite way of saying patients were in jeopardy, of course.

The lesson for us? There comes a point in any doctor’s career when that doctor can no longer do his or her job IN THE BEST INTEREST OF THE PATIENT. And that’s the important part — the best interest of the patient.

In the case of a physician, it could be any number of things, ranging from loss of physical ability to do the job (e.g. shaking hands, poor eyesight) to not knowing the most up-to-date procedures (e.g. open surgery vs. minimally invasive), to problems such as shaky handwriting that could get misinterpreted, including prescriptions or test orders or others.

Does that mean we should avoid “old” doctors? Not at all! In fact, my personal belief is that tapping in to the experience of an older doctor can be invaluable. Even an older surgeon would know what needs to be done to help — and that doesn’t mean that s/he needs to be the one to perform the surgery.

One approach to finding your best options might be this: through your information gathering, get one opinion from an older, more experienced doctor, and one opinion from a younger doctor who is more likely to know the most up-to-date information about what ails you. Weigh the opinions, consult a third doctor if necessary, and make your own decisions from there. Need surgery? Use the information provided by the older doctor to partner with the younger surgeon.

Don’t ask me what “too old” is! No way will I put a number on that. You’ll need to be the judge yourself. Just know that there is a recognition, even among their peers, that doctors do “age out” of their profession.

Don’t be the patient who suffers because a doctor doesn’t take him/herself out of the profession before mistakes are made on you.

And thanks, Dr. W, for the heads up. You’ve done us all a favor.

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