According a study published recently by the British Medical Journal, patients of older physicians have a higher mortality rate of 1.3 percent when compared to their youngest counterparts.
The study, which came from researchers from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, examined more than 700,000 patients of roughly 19,000 doctors from 2011 to 2014, per Ars Technica. What they found was a clear rise in mortality rates with age — although the results of the study do not prove younger doctors are better. According to Ars Technica, the study merely shows a correlation that researches now hope to study further.
The findings “suggest that continuing medical education of physicians could be important and that continual assessment of outcomes might be useful,” the study says.
For doctors under 40 years old, the mortality rates of elderly patients within the first 30 days was 10.8 percent. For those from 40 to 49, the rate was 11.1 percent, rising to 11.3 for doctors age 50 to 59. For physicians 60 or above, the mark is 12.1. The average of the entire study was 11.1
According to the Independent, that equates to one more death per 77 patients between a 40-year-old doctor and a 60-year-old one. A 2014 census of registered physicians found that 26.3 percent of doctors in the U.S. are 60 years or older, with nine percent of those over 70 — the study’s data graph ends at 70 years old and has a mortality rate slightly below 13.5 percent.
“One thing I want to emphasize is that we don't think as doctors get old that their quality gets worse. It is more likely that what we are observing is the differences in training they have received. The relationship between doctors' age and their performance may change over time,” the study’s lead author, Yusuke Tsugawa, told CBS.
Tsugawa does warn that while there is a common perception that older doctors are more experienced and thus better, the reality is that constantly evolving medical techniques mean younger doctors are often better informed about treatment options.
“Medical technologies are evolving all the time and it might be harder for older doctors to keep up with the evidence. And new guidelines are updated every five to 10 years. Newer doctors train based on the newest evidence and skills and technologies. Therefore, they may be more up-to-date when they start providing care,” Tsugawa told CBS.
However, there could be other factors that skew the study’s results. Researchers only considered elderly Medicare patients and doctors in the U.S.
This is not the first time Tsugawa has produced a study that challenges common misconceptions about doctors. In December 2016, he led research that found patients treated by female physicians were four percent less likely to die than those treated by men. According to the same 2014 census, though, medicine remains a male-dominated field, with nearly 66 percent of all doctors being men.