Campus & Community

Older doctors less likely to follow current standards for care

5 min read

New systems needed to support new knowledge

Harvard Medical School (HMS) researchers report in the Annals of Internal Medicine that older physicians may be less likely to deliver currently accepted standards of care. The study’s findings show that the number of years a doctor has been in practice may decrease the likelihood of the doctor providing technically appropriate care.

“The results are paradoxical since it is generally assumed that clinical experience enhances knowledge and skill and therefore leads to better patient care,” says lead author Niteesh Choudhry, HMS instructor in medicine. Choudhry performed the research as a pharmaceutical policy research fellow at the Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention, a unique research and teaching collaboration between Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Harvard Medical School.

The study included a review of 59 previously published papers (comprising 62 individual studies) with a large sample size of doctors. These studies included measures of physician knowledge or quality of care and also included the time since the physician’s medical school graduation or the physician’s age. The researchers found that 73 percent of these studies (45 of 62) showed that a doctor’s performance declines with time. More than half of these studies (32 of 62, or 52 percent) showed that performance declines for all of the outcomes measured, and 13 studies (21 percent) showed that some but not all aspects of a doctor’s performance decline with time.

“The findings also reflect the substantial environmental changes that have occurred in medicine over the past several decades. Evidence-based medicine has been widely adopted, and quality assurance techniques, such as disease management and performance evaluation, are frequently used. More experienced doctors may have less familiarity with these strategies and may be less accepting of them,” says co-author Stephen Soumerai, HMS professor of ambulatory care and prevention.

There are many possible explanations for these findings, and perhaps most plausible, write the researchers, is that doctors’ “tool kits” are created during training and may not be updated regularly. Older physicians seem less likely to adopt newly proven therapies and may be less receptive to new standards of care. Additionally, practice innovations that involve theoretical shifts, such as the use of less aggressive surgical therapy for early-stage breast cancer, may be harder to incorporate into the practice of doctors who have trained long ago.

The study indicates that older doctors may need quality improvement interventions that are generally applicable to all physicians. The current requirements imposed on doctors to keep up to date and demonstrate continuing competence may need to be reconsidered, the authors suggest. Widely adopted techniques, such as distribution of printed materials and lectures, are largely ineffective, says Choudhry. In addition, many experienced doctors are exempt from the recertification requirements to which their more recently trained colleagues must adhere. For example, the American Board of Internal Medicine only requires physicians who received initial board certification in or after 1990 to appear for periodic recertification exams.

“We need to start thinking about more effective ways to help doctors keep up to date,” says Choudhry, also an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “For example, ‘academic detailing,’ in which physicians or other health care personnel go and meet doctors in their practices to teach them about a specific drug or advances in treatment – similar to the way drug company representatives ‘detail’ physicians – is known to be a very effective way to improve the quality of care that doctors provide. What appears to be lacking is the widespread implementation of these and other knowledge translation strategies into the practice of most physicians.”

In the study, Choudhry and his colleagues categorized the 62 studies into four groups on the basis of whether they evaluated a doctor’s knowledge; adherence to standards of care for diagnosis, screening, or prevention (for example, adherence to preventive care guidelines); adherence to standards of care for therapy, including appropriate prescribing; or health outcomes, such as mortality. The results indicate that doctors who have been in practice for more years (as well as older doctors) possess less factual knowledge, are less likely to adhere to appropriate standards of care, and may also have poor patient outcomes.

Twelve of the 62 studies assessed the knowledge of practicing physicians, and all studies reported a negative association between knowledge and experience. For example, one study found that doctors younger than 40 years of age were more likely to correctly believe in the value of therapies for heart attack that improve survival, such as aspirin and betablockers, than their older peers.

Twenty-four of the 62 studies examined the appropriateness of a doctor’s use of diagnostic and screening tests as well as preventive health care. Fifteen of these 24 studies, or 63 percent, demonstrated that physicians in practice for more years were less likely to adhere to the current standards of practice. In the largest of those studies, physicians were surveyed to measure their adherence to cancer screening guidelines endorsed by the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute. Doctors who graduated more than 20 years ago were consistency less likely to adhere to recommended practices; those doctors had 38 to 48 percent lower odds of adhering than younger doctors.

The influence of a doctor’s age or years in practice on performance was examined by 19 of the 62 studies. Of these, 14 studies, or 74 percent, found that older physicians were less likely to adhere to therapeutic standards. For example, one study examined the prescribing behavior of physicians caring for patients with stable angina. Older physicians were significantly less likely to prescribe aspirin, which is a widely accepted standard treatment.