Physician age affects patient mortality - unless volume is high

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"Magnet hospitals have better patient outcomes - including lower mortality and higher patient satisfaction - after taking into account differences in physician qualifications", Aiken said.

Harvard Medical School has more than 11,000 faculty working in 10 academic departments located at the School's Boston campus or in hospital-based clinical departments at 15 Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals and research institutes: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston Children's Hospital, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Cambridge Health Alliance, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, Hebrew SeniorLife, Joslin Diabetes Center, Judge Baker Children's Center, Massachusetts Eye and Ear/Schepens Eye Research Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital, Mount Auburn Hospital, Spaulding Rehabilitation Network and VA Boston Healthcare System.

Readmissions did not vary with physician age, while costs of care were slightly higher among older physicians.

According to new research published this week in the British Medical Journal, being treated by an older doctor - as opposed to a younger physician - may in fact increase your chance of dying within a month of hospital admittance if you're 65 years old or older.

One exception to that finding is that no age-related difference was found when considering in-patients cared for by older physicians who handle a high volume of admitted patients, meaning 200 or more a year.

The researchers caution that their study is strictly observational, showing only a link, rather than cause and effect, between physician age and patient outcomes.

"And our findings suggest that the impact of newer technology is evolving over time, and keeping up with that kind of technology is larger than the impact of experience that the older doctors are accumulating over time". The flip-side is that younger doctors are freshly trained in the most effective practices.

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Tsugawa said older doctors bring experience because they've been practicing a longer time, but younger doctors have more current clinical knowledge. And new guidelines are updated every five to 10 years. "Therefore, they may be more up-to-date when they start providing care", he said.

While the authors acknowledge that their study is "exploratory", they stress that health outcomes, like mortality, should be a key driver in the evolution of medicine.

Given the findings, should hospitalized patients and their loved ones seek out younger caregivers?

That's not the take-home message, said Tsugawa.

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

"One thing I want to emphasize is that we don't think as doctors get old that their quality gets worse. The relationship between doctors' age and their performance may change over time", the study's lead author, Yusuke Tsugawa, told CBS.

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