Kaiser Health News recently published an article about the risk of medical errors posed by elderly physicians. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), about 42% of U.S. doctors are older than 55 and 21% are older than 65. According to the Kaiser Health News article, “
The Kaiser Health News article describes this issue as “emotionally charged,” just as the question of licensing older automobile drivers raises questions about discrimination, autonomy and fairness. Some States have added requirements for older drivers. For example, the State of Texas requires drivers over the age of 79 to undergo a vision test and a basic medical evaluation. However, the medical evaluation is conducted by nonmedical personnel and the license renewal lasts until the individual’s 84th birthday. After age 84, the driver must re-register every 2 years.
There are no such rules for physicians. Anecdotal evidence exists for physicians continuing to practice into their 80s, 90s and, in at least one case, beyond age 100. While physicians are required to take continuing medical education courses to maintain their license to practice, there is no ongoing assessment of competency. The article reports that “about 8,000 doctors with full-blown dementia are practicing medicine” and “approximately one-third of doctors don’t even have a personal physician, who might be on the lookout for deteriorating hearing, vision or motor coordination, or the cognitive impairment that precedes dementia.”
Under Ohio law, if a physician is incompetent and causes injury to a patient, there may be grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit. It may be difficult to prove that medical errors were caused by the physician’s incompetency, however, because Ohio law provides for the mental examination of a litigant only when the individual’s competency is in controversy. It is unresolved whether age or infirmity of a practicing physician puts their competence into question such that an examination can be undertaken by order of court.