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Fábregas: As doctors get old, AMA grapples with how long to extend career

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, June 13, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Dr. Joseph Maroon
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Dr. Joseph Maroon

At 75, Dr. Joe Maroon is more active than many physicians half his age.

The well-known neurosurgeon is training for a triathlon, performs about 300 brain surgeries a year and conducts research that last year produced five scientific papers.

“Quite frankly, I'm just as productive now, if not more so, than I was 15 or 20 years ago,” he said this week after revealing he had spent the morning on a 50-mile bike ride. “Seventy-five is the former 60.”

The age of doctors, it so happens, has surfaced as an area of scrutiny by members of the American Medical Association, the nation's largest group of doctors.

Worried about their competence, the AMA announced this week that it is exploring whether to create guidelines to assess if doctors of a certain age can do their jobs safely. The organization might come up with physical and mental health tests and perhaps a way to review how some doctors treat patients.

It's not a bad idea, if you consider the impetus. Doctors are getting old. An AMA report notes that the number of physicians aged 65 and older has quadrupled since 1975 to 240,000. The doctors group wants to make sure patients are not harmed.

“We don't have enough doctors, so there is a vested interest for society in having doctors practice later on into their lives, extending their careers if they're able to do so,” Dr. Andrew Gurman, 63, a Blair County orthopedic surgeon, told me in his first interview as the AMA's president-elect.

Although there's a steady flow of people going to medical school, the population ages, thus increasing the demand for physicians, he said. The AMA has kicked around 70 as a potential age that would trigger an evaluation.

Maroon, who divulged no plan to retire, is fine with the extra scrutiny, though he believes there should be no age limits for doctors to work.

“People come to me and to more mature physicians for the judgment. Good judgment comes from experience,” he said.

The reality is that not all older physicians are as physically and mentally fit as Maroon. As we age, we experience physical changes and our memory is not as sharp. There's a reason airline pilots must retire at 65.

There's another reality we often ignore about our doctors, mostly because we might consider them to be flawless. Some physicians are not the best role models when it comes to healthy habits, regardless of age. We've all seen the doctor with the pot belly or sneaking a cigarette in the hospital parking lot.

That doesn't make them incompetent to treat us, but it helps when the person talking to us about high blood pressure can fit into his white lab coat.

I'm not saying aging doctors have to follow Maroon and start training for marathons. But the healthy lifestyle he has embraced should not be that difficult to attempt (and that applies to all of us, not just doctors). We all can benefit from a long daily walk and from eating foods rich in antioxidants, as Maroon suggests.

Better yet, Maroon is an advocate for resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine. Who doesn't want to stay healthy by drinking a glass or two of cabernet?

“The responsibility of the physician is to stay intellectually adroit and informed, and to stay physically as healthy as possible and to serve as a role model for your patients,” he said.

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media's medical editor. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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