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How Old Is Your Physician? The Answer May Affect Your Health

You might want to take note of your physician’s age the next time you visit her office: According to a new study, the age of your doctor could impact your health.

The study, published this week in the British Medical Journal, looked at the mortality rates of 736,537 elderly Medicare patients from 2011 to 2014 who were under the care of 18,854 U.S. hospitals.

What the researchers from Harvard Medical School and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found was that patients treated by older hospital-based internists (known as hospitalists) are somewhat more likely to die within a month of admission than those treated by younger physicians.

But just how much higher is the death rate? Well, it looks like patients' 30-day mortality rates were 10.8 percent for doctors who were younger than 40, 11.3 percent for physicians between age 50 and 59 — and 12.1 percent for doctors age 60 or older.

"This difference is not merely statistically significant, but clinically important — it is comparable to the difference in death rates observed between patients at high risk for heart disease who are treated with proper heart medications and those who receive none," said study senior investigator Anupam Jena.

Jena is the Ruth L. Newhouse associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and an internal medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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The largest gap — 1.3 percentage points — was between physicians younger than 40 and those 60 or older. In other words, there was one additional patient death for every 77 patients treated by physicians 60 or older, compared with those treated by doctors younger than 40.

Why the difference? The researchers suggest the doctors' skill level and continuing education as possibilities. ”Older physicians bring invaluable richness of knowledge and depth of experience, yet their clinical skills may begin to lag behind over time," Jena said. "The results of our study suggest the critical importance of continuing medical education throughout a doctor's entire career, regardless of age and experience.”

What's interesting to note: The study found that physicians who handle a high volume of admitted patients (more than 200 a year) were more likely to maintain their clinical skills. This suggests age made no difference in mortality outcomes for physicians who have a large number of patients.

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While these findings definitely shed light on the fact that doctors of all ages should continue to participate in medical-education courses during their working years, researchers say this is an observational study. So no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect — and they stress their findings should be regarded as exploratory.

Sara Hermanson is a freelance writer in Washington State whose focus is health, wellness, fitness and parenting.