As I age, doctors somehow get younger and younger. I swear that I have seen doctors as young as Doogie Howser (note – if you don’t get this reference, you are young enough that doctors seem old to you!). On the other hand, I’ve also seen doctors who seem too old to be working at all, never mind practicing medicine. The issue at hand – does your doctor’s age matter?
Are younger or older doctors better?
When your doctors are young, you may worry they are not experienced enough to provide you with proper care – they’re still learning, right? Although they are young, newer doctors may have more up-to-date skills since they received training on the latest clinical evidence, skills, and technologies. But on the other hand, younger doctors lack the years of knowledge that experienced doctors bring to your care.
However, older doctors can cause concern as well. Does their age make it harder to remember important medical information? Can older doctors make good decisions? Do their years of clinical experience make up for any age-related deficits? Do they rely on outdated theories and practices?
Do doctors get worse as they get older?
As we all age, there are measurable changes in our cognition (our process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses). For instance, certain parts of our brains shrink, especially those parts that are important to learning and other complex mental activities. Additionally, communication between nerve cells may be less effective, there can be a decrease in blood flow in the brain, as well as an increase of inflammation. These changes can occur even in healthy people – including doctors.
Moreover, medicine is an ever-evolving field. The skill set of older doctors can become outdated as scientific knowledge, technology, and clinical guidelines change. And it can be hard, and time consuming, for older doctors to keep up with changes and incorporate them into their practices. Of course, it’s important to note that younger doctors may not keep up with the latest knowledge and guidelines as well.
On a positive note, older doctors have years and years of accumulated knowledge and experience that can lead to improved quality of care.
Doctor’s age can matter – research shows higher death rates for patients with older doctors.
A study, published in 2017, evaluated hospitalizations for over 894,000 patients in Pennsylvania in a 7+ year period and found increased patient mortality for those treated by older doctors. Alarmingly, they found that each decade since graduation from medical school was associated with a 4.5% increase in relative risk for patient mortality. Importantly, the researchers found that mortality rates were not impacted by the volume of patients seen by each doctor.
Interestingly, in another study published in 2017, researchers found higher death rates for patients of older doctors, but only when the older doctors treated a low volume of patients.
Like the study in Pennsylvania, researchers examined records of over 736,000 hospital admissions by Medicare patients in hospitals throughout the US. The researchers found that within the same hospital, patients treated by older doctors (60+) had higher death rates within 30 days of hospitalization, as compared to younger doctors. Among doctors with a high volume of patients, there was no association between doctor age and patient mortality.
Importantly, in this study the difference in mortality rates was not alarming, but was statistically significant, as shown below:
Additionally, study author Dr. Yusuke Tsugawa stated: “A lot of patients have a perception that older doctors give better quality of care. But previous studies, multiple studies, have shown that younger doctors have more aptitude.”
Is your doctor too old?
Certainly, there are plenty of doctors over age 60 who maintain sharp clinical skills, keep up with medical advances, and provide quality care. However, there is no guarantee that any of your doctors, regardless of their age, keep up with the latest clinical and technologic developments.
Importantly, you want to see a doctor who is actively managing a full caseload of patients, since many experts believe that caring for large numbers of patients keeps a doctor’s skill set strong.
Additionally, if any of your doctors are over 60, there is a chance retirement is around the corner. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctors how much longer they expect to work. Of course, I am not suggesting you immediately leave any of your doctors who are over 60! In fact, I have several older doctors whom I trust completely, and I will be sad when they retire.
However, it might be a good idea to start planning for an older doctor’s possible retirement. It takes time to find a doctor who is taking new patients and accepts your insurance. And of course, your new doctor should be a good personality fit for you.
What if your doctor is very young?
Don’t immediately assume your young doctor doesn’t know what he/she is doing. But don’t assume they know everything either. Medicine is part art and part science.
Properly diagnosing and treating patients requires “book knowledge” combined with experience. If you think your doctor is too inexperienced to provide you with the care you need, do not hesitate to look for a more experienced doctor.
It’s not all about your doctor’s age.
There are so many factors to consider when choosing a doctor. Certainly, you need doctors with the expertise to handle your care. Importantly, use doctors who regularly keep up with continuing medical education, regardless of their age and experience. And don’t shy away from busy doctors – large caseloads keep their skills sharp.
But, it’s not only about medical credentials. Bedside manner is critical – it’s hard to connect with a surly, dismissive doctor. For example, you deserve a doctor who treats you with respect, involves you in decision making, and is responsive and accessible.
Do your doctors have the training and experience you need?
No matter your doctor’s age, do a little research to learn if your doctor has the skills you need.
First, make sure your doctors are trained and certified in the specialty for which they are treating you. And ask your doctor, politely, how they maintain their skills in the ever-changing landscape of medicine.
Additionally, you can research to learn if your doctor has recently presented at medical conferences, authored research papers, or received awards. Any of these can indicate a mastery of current trends.
For instance, you can use PubMed or ResearchGate to search for information on research projects and publications. Or you can search by their name (use quotation marks around their name to focus the search on the right person) and the words “research”, “publication”, “presentation”, “awards”, or “conference”.
Importantly, ask your doctor how much experience he/she has with your specific condition. Whenever possible, choose a doctor who is familiar with your condition. If you have a rare condition, this may mean a doctor who has treated just a few patients. For more common conditions, try to find a doctor who has treated hundreds of similar patients.
For more recommendations, read How Do You Find a New Doctor You Can Trust?
With any doctors you see, be engaged in your care to help yourself get the best care and outcome possible. Read these posts for more information:
- Understanding Medical Information Is Harder Than Most Realize.
- 10 Tips for a Better Medical Appointment.
- Why Take Detailed Notes at Doctor Appointments?
- 10 Tips to Communicate Better with Doctors.
- 6 Tips to Better Manage Your Care.
- What is the Best Time of Day for Medical Care?
- How Can You Get the Best Healthcare? Actively Participate!
NOTE: I updated this post on 4-25-22.