Prefer an Older Doctor? Study Says This Could Put You at Risk


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

The oldest working registered nurse in America is 91, and she has worked as a nurse for more than 70 years! As a healthcare professional myself, I admire such a strong dedication to the healthcare field as well as a passion to help other people. I bet this nurse could do her job in her sleep! And if I were admitted to her care, I may take comfort in knowing that someone who is very seasoned in their job is addressing my health concerns. It is the same reason I usually prefer an older, more experienced pilot over a younger one with less flying time under their belt.

I think many of you may feel the same way when it comes to doctors. The longer a doctor has been practicing, the more you tend to trust his or her judgment. Although there are benefits to having older doctors, a study by Harvard Medical School and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests patients treated by older physicians (60 and up) are slightly more likely to die within a month of admission to the hospital compared to patients treated by younger physicians (40 and younger).

It’s important to note, this particular study focused on one subspecialty of doctors, hospitalists. Hospitalists are usually the physicians who treat you while you are hospitalized.

Researchers analyzed more than 730,000 hospital admission records of Medicare patients, ages 65 and older, treated between 2011 and 2014 by more than 18,800 physicians. They concluded there is a 10.8 percent chance of death for patients treated by younger physicians compared to a 12.1 percent chance for patients treated by older physicians.

The difference in patient death rates between physicians in their 40s and 50s were far less emphasized, at 11.1 percent versus 11.3 percent.

All of these numbers may seem like an insignificant difference, but the report says the results are “modest yet clinically meaningful.”

The difference in death rates actually translate into one additional patient death for every 77 patients treated by an older doctor.

If you have an older doctor, this does not mean you should swap for a younger one. The researchers further caution that “their study is strictly observational, showing only a link, rather than cause and effect, between physician age and patient outcomes.”

Older doctors with more experience have invaluable knowledge, skills and expertise. For example, in the study, age did not make a difference in the death rate when doctors managed a large number of patients. The research team said, “[t]hat finding suggests that treating more patients may have a protective effect on maintaining clinical skills.” So clearly, what is very important is all doctors, young and old, continue medical education and maintain an active practice throughout their careers. All doctors need to be aware of new research and relevant clinical guidelines in the medical field.

As informed as the doctors need to be, so should we as patients. A major part of being proactive about your health is being educated about our own bodies. And remember, just as we are unique as people we are unique as patients. There are even studies that suggest a female doctor may be better for some patients. And if you are a minority, you may have unique issues which you should be aware of in order to receive appropriate treatment.

Enjoy your healthy life!     

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, health care attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. To learn more about the pH Health Care Team, click here.