Too Old to Practice Medicine?

Unlike for many other professions, there is no age limit for practicing medicine. According to international standards, airplane pilots, for example, who are responsible for the safety of many human lives, must retire by the age of 60 if they work alone, or 65 if they have a co-pilot. In Brazil, however, this age limit does not exist for pilots or physicians.

The only restriction on professional practice within the medical context is the mandatory retirement imposed on medical professors who teach at public (state and federal) universities, starting at the age of 75. Nevertheless, these professionals can continue practicing administrative and research-related activities. After “expulsion,” as this mandatory retirement is often called, professors who stood out or contributed to the institution and science may receive the title of professor emeritus.

In the private sector, age limits are not formally set, but the hiring of middle-aged professionals is limited.

At the Heart Institute of the University of São Paulo School of Medicine Clinical Hospital (InCor/HCFMUSP), São Paulo, Brazil, one of the world’s largest teaching and research centers for cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, several octogenarian specialists lead studies and teams. One of these is Noedir Stolf, MD, an 82-year-old cardiovascular surgeon who operates almost every day and coordinates studies on transplants, mechanical circulatory support, and aortic surgery. There is also Protásio Lemos da Luz, MD, an 82-year-old clinical cardiologist who guides research on subjects ranging from atherosclerosis, the endothelium, microbiota, and diabetes. The protective effect of wine on atherosclerosis is one of his best-known studies.

No longer working is also not in the cards for Angelita Habr-Gama, MD, who, at 89 years old, is one of the oldest physicians in current practice. With a career spanning more than seven decades, she is a world reference in coloproctology. She was the first woman to become a surgical resident at the HCFMUSP, where she later founded the coloproctology specialty and created the first residency program for the specialty. In April 2022, Habr-Gama joined the ranks of the 100 most influential scientists in the world, nominated by researchers at Stanford University, Stanford, California, in the United States and published in PLOS Biology.

In 2020, she was sedated, intubated, and hospitalized in the intensive care unit of the Oswaldo Cruz German Hospital for 54 days due to a SARS-CoV-2 infection. After her discharge, she went back to work in less than 10 days — and added chess classes to her routine. “To get up and go to work makes me very happy. Work is my greatest hobby. No one has ever heard me complain about my life,” Habr-Gama told Medscape Portuguese edition after having rescheduled the interview twice because of emergency surgeries.

“Doctors have a professional longevity that does not exist for other professions in which the person retires and stops practicing their profession or goes on to do something else for entertainment. Doctors can retire from one place of employment or public practice and continue practicing medicine in the office as an administrator or consultant,” Ângelo Vattimo, first secretary of the state of São Paulo Regional Board of Medicine (CREMESP), stated. The board regularly organizes a ceremony to honor professionals who have been practicing for 50 years, awarding them a certificate and engraved medal. “Many of them are around 80 years old, working and teaching. This always makes us very happy. What profession has such exceptional compliance for so long?” said Vattimo.

In the medical field, the older the age range, the smaller the number of women. According to the 2020 Medical Demographics in Brazil survey, only two out of 10 practicing professionals older than 70 are women.

Not everyone over 80 has Habr-Gama’s vitality, because the impact of aging is not equal. “If you look at a group of 80-year-olds, there will be much more variability than within a group of 40-year-olds,” stated Mark Katlic, MD, chief of surgery at LifeBridge Health System in the United States, who has dedicated his life to studying the subject. Katlic spoke on the subject in an interview with Medscape that was published in the article “How Old Is Too Old to Work as a Doctor?” The article discusses the evaluations of elderly physicians’ skills and competences that US companies conduct. The subject has been leading to profound debate.

Katlic defends screening programs for elderly physicians, which already are in effect at the company for which he works, LifeBridge Health, and various others in the United States. “We do [screen elderly physicians at LifeBridge Health], and so do a few dozen other [US institutions], but there are hundreds [of healthcare institutions] that do not conduct this screening,” he pointed out.

Age-related assessment faces great resistance in the US. One physician who is against the initiative is Frank Stockdale, MD, PhD, an 86-year-old practicing oncologist affiliated with Stanford University Health. “It’s age discrimination…. Physicians [in the United States] receive assessments throughout their careers as part of the accreditation process — there’s no need to change that as physicians reach a certain age,” Stockdale told Medscape.

The US initiative of instituting physician assessment programs for those of a certain age has even been tested in court. According to the article published in Medscape, “in New Haven, Connecticut, for instance, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a suit in 2020 on behalf of the Yale New Haven Hospital staff, alleging a discriminatory late career practitioner policy.”

Also, according to the article, a similar case in Minnesota, also in the United States, reached a settlement in 2021, providing monetary relief to staff impacted by out-of-pocket costs for the assessment, in addition to requiring that the hospital in question report to the EEOC any complaints related to age discrimination.

The fact is that increased life expectancy and, subsequently, the number of middle-aged physicians in practice has raised several questions regarding the impact of aging on professional practice. In Brazil, the subject is of interest to more than 34,571 physicians between 65 and 69 years of age and 34,237 physicians older than 70. In all, this population represents approximately 14.3% of the country’s active workforce, according to the 2020 Medical Demographics in Brazil survey.

The significant participation of healthcare professionals over age 50 in a survey conducted by Medscape to learn what physicians think about the age limit for practicing their professions is evidence that the subject is a present concern. Of a total of 1641 participants, 57% were age 60 or older, 17% were between 50 and 59 years, and 12% were between 40 and 49 years. Among all participants, 51% were against these limitations, 17% approved of the idea for all specialties, and 32% believed the restriction was appropriate only for some specialties. Regarding the possibility of older physicians undergoing regular assessments, the opinions were divided: 31% thought they should be assessed in all specialties. Furthermore, 31% believed that cognitive abilities should be regularly tested in all specialties, 31% thought this should take place for some specialties, and 38% were against this approach.

Professionals want to know, for example, how (and whether) advanced age can interfere with performance, what are the competences required to practice their activities, and if the criteria vary by specialty. “A psychiatrist doesn’t have to have perfect visual acuity, as required from a dermatologist, but it is important that they have good hearing, for example,” argued Clóvis Constantino, MD, former president of the São Paulo Regional Medical Board (CRM-SP) and former vice president of the Brazilian Federal Medical Board (CFM). “However, a surgeon has to stand for several hours in positions that may be uncomfortable. It’s not easy,” he told Medscape.

In the opinion of 82-year-old Henrique Klajner, MD, the oldest pediatrician in practice at the Albert Einstein Israeli Hospital in São Paulo, the physician cannot be subjected to the types of evaluations that have been applied in the United States. “Physicians should conduct constant self-evaluations to see if they have the competences and skills needed to practice their profession…. Moreover, this is not a matter of age. It is a matter of ethics,” said Klajner.

The ability to adapt to change and implement innovation is critical to professional longevity, he said. “Nowadays, when I admit patients, I no longer do hospital rounds, which requires a mobility equal to physical abuse for me. Therefore, I work with physicians who take care of my hospitalized patients.”

Klajner also feels there is a distinction between innovations learned through studies and what can be offered safely to patients. “If I have to care for a hospitalized patient with severe pneumonia, for example, since I am not up to date in this specialty, I am going to call upon a pulmonologist I trust and forgo my honorarium for this admission. But I will remain on the team, monitoring the patient’s progression,” he said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Klajner stopped seeing patients in person under the recommendation of his son, Sidney Klajner, MD, who is also a physician. The elder Klajner began exploring telemedicine, which opened a whole new world of possibilities. “I have conducted several online visits to provide educational instruction to mothers returning home post delivery, for example,” he told Medscape Portuguese edition. The time to stop is not something that concerns Klajner. “I’m only going to stop when I have a really important reason to do so. For example, if I can no longer write or study, reading and rereading an article without being able to understand what is being said. At this time, none of that is happening.”

In the US, as well as in Brazil, physicians rarely provide information to human resources departments on colleagues showing signs of cognitive or motor decline affecting their professional performance. “The expectation is that healthcare professionals will report colleagues with cognitive impairments, but that often does not happen,” Katlic told Medscape.

It is also not common for professionals to report their own deficits to their institutions. In large part, this is caused by a lack of well-defined policies for dealing with this issue. Medscape Portuguese edition sought out several public and private hospitals in Brazil to see if there is any guidance on professional longevity: most said that there is not. Only the A. C. Camargo Cancer Center reported, through its public relations team, that a committee is discussing the subject but that it is still in the early stages.

Brazilian specialist associations do not offer guidelines or instructions on the various aspects of professional longevity. Constantino tried to put the subject on the agenda during the years in which he was an administrator with the CFM. “We tried to open up discussions regarding truly elderly physicians, but the subject was not well received. I believe that it is precisely because there is a tradition of physicians working until they are no longer able that this is more difficult in Brazil…. No one exactly knows what to do in this respect.” Constantino is against the use of age as a criterion for quitting practice.

“Of course, this is a point that has to be considered, but I always defended the need for regular assessment of physicians, regardless of age range. And, although assessments are always welcome, in any profession, I also believe this would not be well received in Brazil.” He endorses an assessment of one’s knowledge and not of physical abilities, which are generally assessed through investigation when needed.

The absence of guidelines increases individual responsibility, as well as vulnerability. “Consciously, physicians will not put patients at risk if they do not have the competence to care for them or to perform a surgical procedure,” Clystenes Odyr Soares Silva, MD, PhD, adjunct professor of pulmonology of the Federal University of São Paulo School of Medicine (UNIFESP), São Paulo, Brazil, told Medscape. “Your peers will tell you if you are no longer able,” he added. The problem is that physicians rarely admit to or talk about their colleagues’ deficits, especially if they are in the spotlight because of advanced age. In this situation, the observation and opinion of family members regarding the healthcare professional’s competences and skills will also hold more weight.

In case of health-related physical impairment, such as partial loss of hand movement, for example, “it is expected that this will set off an ethical warning in the person,” said Constantino. When this warning does not occur naturally, patients or colleagues can report the professional, and this may lead to the opening of an administrative investigation. If the report is found to be true, this investigation is used to suspend physicians who do not have the physical or mental ability to continue practicing medicine.

“If it’s something very serious, the physician’s license can be temporarily suspended while [the physician] is treated by a psychiatrist, with follow-up by the professional board. When discharged, the physician will get his or her [professional] license back and can go back to work,” Constantino explained. If an expert evaluation is needed, the physician will then be assessed by a forensic psychiatrist. One of the most in-demand forensic psychiatrists in Brazil is Guido Arturo Palomba, MD, 73 years old. “I have assessed some physicians for actions reported to see if they were normal people or not, but never for circumstances related to age,” Palomba told Medscape.

In practice, Brazilian medical entities do not have policies or programs to guide physicians who wish to grow old while they work or those who have started to notice they are not performing as they used to. “We have never lived as long; therefore, the quality of life in old age, as well as the concept of aging, are some of the most relevant questions of our time. These are subjects requiring additional discussion, broadening understanding and awareness in this regard,” observed Vattimo.

Constantino and Silva, who are completely against age-based assessments, believe that recertification of the specialist license every 5 years is the best path to confirming whether the physician is still able to practice. “A knowledge-based test every 5 years to recertify the specialist license has often been a topic of conversation. I think it’s an excellent idea. The person would provide a dossier of all they have done in terms of courses, conferences, and other activities, present it, and receive a score,” said Silva.

In practice, recertification of the specialist license is a topic of discussion that has been raised for years, and it is an idea that the Brazilian Medical Association (AMB) defends. In conjunction with the CFM, the association is studying a way to best implement this assessment. “It’s important to emphasize that this measure would not be retroactive at first. Instead, it would only be in effect for professionals licensed after the recertification requirement is established,” the AMB pointed out in a note sent to Medscape Portuguese edition. Even so, the measure has faced significant resistance from a faction of the profession, and its enactment does not seem to be imminent.

The debate regarding professional longevity is taking place in various countries. In 2021, the American Medical Association (AMA) Council on Medical Education released a report with a set of guidelines for the screening and assessment of physicians. The document is the product of a committee created in 2015 to study the subject. The AMA recommends that the assessment of elderly physicians be based on evidence and ethical, relevant, fair, equitable, transparent, verifiable, nonexhaustive principles, contemplating support and protecting against legal proceedings. In April of this year, a new AMA document highlighted the same principles.

Also in the US, one of oldest initiatives created to support physicians in the process of recycling, the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Physician Assessment and Clinical Education Program (PACE), has a section focusing on the extended practice of medicine (Practicing Medicine Longer). For those wanting to learn more about discussions on this subject, there are online presentations on experiences in Quebec and Ontario, Canada, with assessing aging physicians, neuropsychological perspectives on the aging medical population, and what to expect of healthy aging, among other subjects.

Created in 1996, PACE mostly provides services to physicians who need to address requirements of the state medical boards. Few physicians enroll on their own.

The first part of the program assesses knowledge and skills over approximately 2 days. In the second phase, the physician participates in a series of activities in a corresponding residency program. Depending on the results, the physician may have to go through a remedial program with varying activities to deal with performance deficiencies to clinical experiences at the residency level.

This article was translated from the Medscape Portuguese edition.

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