Medical providers frequently wonder, “What age do surgeons retire?” There’s no mandate for a general surgeon retirement age, but there are many factors that may play into practicing surgeons deciding to step back from clinical responsibilities.
In his lecture “The Aging Surgeon: When Is It Time to Retire?” — now available for CME credit through AudioDigest — James Hebert, MD, discusses decline in abilities as well as how other industries handle this conundrum.
Recognizing the right general surgeon retirement age, or at least the right age to step back from clinical duties, is important, he says, because you don’t want to be the surgeon who was once known for being great.
The Slippery Slope of Aging
According to Dr. Hebert, the number of physicians over age 65 more than quadrupled between 1975 and 2015. As a group more than 250,000 strong, older doctors make up nearly 25% of the overall physician workforce, and 40% are still in active clinical practice.
But as doctors, including general surgeons, get older, the question “What age do surgeons retire?” looms large. Dips in physical strength, eyesight, hearing, dexterity and reaction time are commonplace with advancing age. It’s important to pay attention to these changes because at some point, reduced capabilities may mean it’s time to put down the scalpel.
Impact on Care
Several factors may influence general surgeon retirement age. In some cases, clinical performance simply begins to decline, according to existing research. For example, one surgical study Dr. Hebert cites indicates that while performance remains largely the same after a second recertification, there’s a noticeable fall-off once a physician reaches the time for the third recertification. This outcome also lines up with other evidence of cognitive decline with age.
In addition, he says that if a surgeon is finding it difficult to keep up with the latest literature or advancements in the field or can no longer attend conferences, it could be time to consider retirement.
What Medical Societies Are Doing
Dr. Hebert says that overall, even though there’s no federal or state mandate for the general surgeon retirement age, doctors and surgeons should be proactive and create regulations or draft guidelines that can serve as direction for when providers should begin to step back from clinical activity. The American Medical Association is currently assessing the interplay between physician age and competency.
The American College of Surgeons is also taking steps to help surgeons routinely and accurately assess their abilities as they age. At age 65, they can confidentially take an exam that evaluates their vision and neurocognition. Surgeons can use the results to potentially alter or redesign their professional activities.
What Other Industries Do
Across a variety of industries, Dr. Hebert says, there’s a mandatory retirement age, or at least a mandatory change in responsibilities.
For example, commercial pilots must step back from flying planes with passengers at age 65, and before that, they must submit to routine testing of their capabilities. After 40, they must undergo a doctor’s exam every six months to be cleared to fly. They also have to pass a proficiency exam every 24 months.
In addition, air traffic controllers, FBI agents, law enforcement officials and firefighters all have mandated retirement ages.
However, no state has a required general surgeon retirement age, and only three hospitals nationwide have surgeons make changes to their clinical activities after age 65.
Retirement vs. Long-Term Impact
Ultimately, many surgeons fear fully stepping away from clinical practice because they’re worried about how they will fill their time. That shouldn’t be a significant concern, according to Dr. Hebert, because surgeons can still contribute in meaningful ways by serving as a sounding board and a source of institutional knowledge.