Published: Thu, May 18, 2017
Medicine | By Megan Pierce

Patients of older doctors have higher mortality rates

Patients of older doctors have higher mortality rates

Patients treated by older hospitalists are somewhat more likely to die within a month of admission than patients treated by younger physicians, suggests research published this week in the BJM. Older doctors who saw high volumes of patients didn't see their patients' mortality rates increase.

Tsugawa's team looked at mortality, readmissions and cost of care for the patients, aged 65 and older, in the 30 days after they were admitted to hospital.

A team of researchers led by Yusuke Tsugawa of Harvard University, in Boston, set out to measure the relationship between patient mortality and doctor age by crunching the numbers on 736,537 elderly U.S. hospital patients and the 18,854 doctors who treated them. That difference translates into one additional patient death for every 77patients treated by physicians 60 and older, compared with those treated by doctors 40 and younger.

They found that among doctors with a high volume of patients there was no association between physician age and patient mortality.

In an accompanying editorial, Linda Aiken, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research, and her co-authors wrote that the study findings are "clinically relevant" and deserve attention.

It has always been assumed that older doctors provide better care than their younger colleagues because they have more experience. The share of physicians aged 55 or over is within the range of 40-46 percent in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, Hungary, Belgium, Latvia, Estonia and France, peaking at 52 percent in Italy.

"One thing I want to emphasize is that we don't think as doctors get old that their quality gets worse".

The researchers caution that their study is strictly observational, showing only a link, rather than cause and effect, between physician age and patient outcomes. There were 18,854 hospitalist physicians involved in the patients' care.

The findings might not carry over to non-Medicare patients, or patients cared for by surgeons and by other specialists.

The authors suggest there may be a need for continuing education throughout doctors' working lives.

They also found the cost of care increased slightly with physician age, but determined it was not statistically significant.

Tsugawa said older doctors bring experience because they've been practicing a longer time, but younger doctors have more current clinical knowledge.

The study's authors note, though, that these findings shouldn't deter people from seeing older doctors.

To further define physician characteristics and the hospital environment in which they practice, researchers linked patient admission records to data obtained from Doximity, an online professional network for practicing physicians, as well as to data from the American Hospital Association's annual survey, which collects and analyzes hospital infrastructure, staffing, demographics, organizational structure and service lines, among other factors.

The study results could come as a surprise given that older physicians typically have more years of experience.

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