A new study in The BMJ found that patients treated by older physicians had a higher mortality rate than patients cared for by those who were younger. Readmission rates and costs of care did not vary by physician age in the study.
Patients of physicians under the age of 40 had a 10.8% mortality rate, which increased to 11.1% for patients with doctors in their 40s, 11.3% for physicians in their 50s and 12.1% for docs over 60.
The researchers reviewed 736,537 admissions managed by 18,854 hospital physicians and examined Medicare patient outcomes, including 30-day mortality rate, readmissions and costs of care.
The study results could come as a surprise given that older physicians typically have more years of experience. The researchers found that physicians who treated low to medium volumes of patients from 2011 to 2014 were the ones who primarily drove the link between physician age and patient mortality. This suggests that "high volumes could be 'protective' of clinical skills," they concluded. They also noted that hospital medicine is rapidly evolving and “physicians further from training are less likely to adhere to evidence-based guidelines, might use newly proved treatments less often, and might more often rely on clinical evidence that is not up to date."
There are a lot of older physicians in the country's active workforce. In fact, those between the ages of 65 and 75 account for 10% of the workforce and those between ages 55 and 64 account for 26%, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reported earlier this year. The association added that more than one-third of all active physicians will be 65 or older over the next 10 years.
Even as these older physicians retire, there will be an even bigger problem facing the nation – there won't be enough younger doctors that could take their place. Early retirement will be the main driver of a physician shortage ranging between 34,600 and 88,000 doctors by 2025, according to the AAMC.
The demand for care services is expected to substantially increase with the country's aging population as elderly patients typically require more care. "The combination of an aging patient population and an aging physician population is creating one of the underlying drivers of the growing physician shortage." Merritt Hawkins, an AMN Healthcare company, stated in its recent report on the aging physician workforce.
The new study in The BMJ is also fuel in the debate over whether there should be a cutoff age for physicians or if they should continue to make retirement decisions on their own.