New Jersey Doctor Leads Calls to Improve Assessments of Aging Physicians

“It’s a very individual thing,” said Dr. Peter Carmel.

Dr. Carmel, 76, is a pediatric neurosurgeon at University Hospital, immediate past president of the American Medical Association (AMA), and a professor at UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School.  Dr. Carmel made this statement to the Star Ledger, in reference to the nation’s aging physician population.

“We have to have monitoring systems and that’s not easy to arrange in a country of real civil liberties.  There are general tools that could be promoted that would go a long way to assuring the public that the guy with the gray hair still has his marbles.”

Dr. Carmel is a leading voice in the push to improve ways in which hospitals and doctors’ offices assess the capability of older doctors.  Currently, 42% of the country’s doctors are older than 55.  Twenty-one percent are older than 65.  These numbers are up from the last AMA study in 2006—and they are expected to continue to rise.  The Baby Boomer generation is simply slow to leave the field for whatever reasons, financial or personal.

But currently, there are no national standards or guidelines that police a doctor’s continued physical or mental state as he or she gets older.  And while, notes the Star-Ledger, airline pilots must retire at 65, and FBI agents at 57, doctors can continue practicing with no set retirement age.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  But, along with that lack of an age ceiling, there is also “no requirement that a doctor take a hearing test or a vision test, or undergo any kind of cognitive screening.”

And, in a 2007 questionnaire, 45% of the physicians that answered the question admitted to not reporting impaired colleagues at least once.

Led by Dr. Carmel and others, the nation’s leading medical associations are taking a vigorous look at the way doctors police themselves and each other.  Efficient and fair policies put into effect in the first place, can save lives and professional reputations down the line.

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