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David Mittleman
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Aging Doctors and Safe Patient Care: Bridging the Gap

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Age can take a toll on anyone's profession, but for doctors this may be particularly pertinent. Dr. Norman Dunitz, an orthopedic surgeon in Oklahoma, decided to retire after realizing that his motor skills and eyesight weren't what they used to be, but it was a gradual acceptance. Still, some doctors don't even recognize that their age is becoming more of a hindrance to their ability to provide quality patient care and this is particularly problematic considering that the doctor population is aging.

Dr. Dunitz first realized that his age was becoming a problem for his patients' safety when surgery became difficult. Because many surgeries were scheduled in the afternoon, Dr. Dunitz would feel tired by night and have muscle cramps in his feet. It was a sign to him that he was trying to do too much, so he gave up doing surgery in his later 70s. He spent the last few years of his practice seeing patients in his office, providing referrals for surgery, and treating patients with injections, medications and physical therapy. Finally, he retired at age 86.

No one agrees that there should be a firm retirement age for doctors, although geriatric psychiatry, neuropsychology and physician assessment experts agree that an aging doctor population poses concerns for patient safety. Airline pilots are required to retire by age 65, but it is more difficult to impose strict retirement conditions on older doctors, many of whom can still practice safe medicine late into their golden years. But it is important to address the issue, since older physicians are subject to the same problems as any other aging person: hand tremors, macular degeneration, and dementia which can spell big trouble for safe patient care. Concerns over the aging doctor population has prompted 24 boards that compose the American Board of Medical Specialities to require more frequent re-certification exams and practice-improvement modules. This is a definite move in the right direction, but it will still be difficult for medical groups to address the touchy subject of aging doctors who do have children's tuition bills, weddings, and other life expenses to pay for by practicing medicine and this is especially true during the recession.