How old is too old to safely perform surgery?

Aging surgeons might put patients at risk of harm

No one takes going in for surgery lightly. When we go under the knife, we want to be sure that we are getting the best possible care. Often, this means choosing the surgeon with the most experience. But what happens when a surgeon's age becomes a liability?

Of course, not everyone begins to falter in their old age. Many people stay alert and active well into their 70s and 80s. But, for others, the years can take their toll. Dementia, confusion, easy fatigue, failing eyesight and poor coordination are all too common. When you combine these shortcomings with the risks inherent in surgery, it is easy to see how dangerous medical errors might occur.

AMA to issue guidelines for aging physicians

Unlike in some other high-risk professions, there is no mandatory retirement age for surgeons. Nor are there currently any nationwide guidelines or mandatory assessments to determine whether physicians are still able to practice medicine safely.

This may soon change. At a recent meeting of the American Medical Association, members agreed to craft guidelines for assessing whether aging doctors might be putting patient safety at risk. The initiative sprung from a report that recommended periodic reevaluation after age 70. The report dissuaded the AMA from adopting a mandatory retirement age, noting that "physicians should be allowed to remain in practice as long as patient safety is not endangered."

While national standards do not yet exist, some hospitals have implemented guidelines of their own. Sinai Hospital in Baltimore has a two-day evaluation called "The Aging Surgeon Program," which is available to surgeons throughout the world. It tests skills including hand-eye coordination, eyesight and hearing. Evaluations can be requested by surgeons themselves, or by the hospitals they work for. Stanford Health has adopted a "Late Career Practitioner Policy," which mandates screenings every two years for physicians over age 75.

Both of these programs have been greeted with skepticism from the doctors they hope to supervise, which may be an early indicator of how the AMA's guidelines will be accepted.

What to do if you've been injured

If you or a loved one was harmed by a surgeon whose abilities might not have been up to par, it is important to discuss your case with an experienced medical malpractice attorney. Often, the line between honest mistake and negligent error can be hard to distinguish, especially for someone who isn't well-versed in the intricacies of medical malpractice law.

Moreover, it is important to recognize that Iowa law limits the amount of time an injured patient (or the family of a deceased patient) has to bring a claim against a negligent doctor, making it all the more important to contact an attorney as soon as the error is discovered. The lawyers at Hixon & Brown, P.C. offer free case evaluations to injured patients throughout the state of Iowa.

Keywords: surgical errors, medical malpractice