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Will mental evaluations lower the number of physician errors?

When someone is responsible for your safety, you want to make sure that they are in fact capable of doing that. For example, pilots of commercial airlines are required to take physical and mental assessments every 6 months starting from a certain age. Because they are responsible for the lives of everyone on their aircraft, they are evaluated on a consistent basis.

Surprisingly, the medical profession does not have a screening similar to the one that pilots have. But concern has been raised over whether the medical profession should have a more standardized assessment for physicians. As age increases, the risk of developing cognitive deficits also increases. Without any procedural safeguards, the risk of medical malpractice could also rise.

A recent article provided an example where an older surgeon performed many operations, even though he suffered from a cognitive deficit. Those around him were not aware of the problem until one of his patients died. But even after the hospital reported him, he was not assessed until four years later. During that time he continued to operate on patients.

This could be a growing concern. Like anyone else, doctors can develop diseases that come with old age such as dementia. These types of illnesses can seriously affect a doctor's ability to perform risky surgeries, properly diagnose patients, and respond in emergency situations. So what does that mean for the patient?

In extreme cases, that can mean life or death for a patient. Currently there are only a handful of hospitals that regularly screen older physicians. In addition, a small number of medical boards require that physicians meet recertification requirements in order to continue practicing. But even with those processes in place, is that enough? Should all doctors be required to undergo assessments after a specific age?

It seems that physician errors cause problems for both the physician and the patient. Physicians deal with the possibility of losing their license, but patients could lose much more than that. But in a profession where patient safety is a continual priority, perhaps systematic assessments of physicians is something to consider.

Source: The New York Times online, "As Doctors Age, Worries About Their Ability Grow," Laurie Tarkan, 24 January 2011

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