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Determining When Physicians Are Too Old to Practice

CHICAGO – When is it time for physicians to hang up the white coats for good and trade it all in for more free time? The nation’s largest organization of doctors wants to help make that decision.

Rejecting the concept of a mandatory retirement age for physicians, the American Medical Association will create competency guidelines for determining whether aging physicians still are capable of providing safe and effective care for patients.

Part of the impetus for the plan is that one out of four doctors in the United States is over 65. Unlike some other professions where mistakes can be deadly, physicians have no mandatory retirement age, although they must meet requirements set by state licensing boards, on some occasions, hospitals.

In June, delegates approved the report from the AMA's Council on Medical Education, which states, "physicians should be allowed to remain in practice as long as patient safety is not endangered."

The report doesn’t specify how the testing would be done or who would do it, although it suggests that evaluations of physical, mental health and how patients are treated. Authors argue it could “head off a call for mandatory retirement ages or imposition of guidelines by others.”

As for when the review should take place, "Unfortunate outcomes may trigger an evaluation at any age, but perhaps periodic reevaluation after a certain age such as 70, when incidence of declines is known to increase, may be appropriate," the report notes.

The panel points out that aging can affect hearing, vision, memory and motor skills but adds that evidence is lacking on precisely how those changes affect physicians' competence and patient outcomes. The report also emphasizes that, while they may think otherwise, physicians don’t always have good judgment on when they need to retire.

The number of U.S. physicians aged 65 and older has quadrupled since 1975, reaching about 240,000, according to the AMA.