Can a Physician Be Too Old to Practice Medicine?

We know that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) restricts the ability to make age-related decisions, unless it can be established that age is a “bona fide occupational qualification”. A bona fide occupational qualification generally means that the individual has a trait that precludes safe and efficient job performance. Under certain circumstances, the courts have allowed some industries to force the retirement of a class of individuals (pilots for example) at a certain age, based on the belief that it is too complicated to deal with such individuals on an individualized bases.

So, is a physician’s age a factor that precludes safe and efficient job performance? To my knowledge, no court has approved a mandatory retirement age for physicians and no credentialing or licensing body has set a firm mandatory retirement date for physicians. However, some credentialing bodies have established age related policies, mandating an evaluation process for physicians of a certain age.

Because physicians’ duties vary widely by practice area, a one size fits all policy doesn’t work. For example, the physical and other skills required to practice orthopaedic surgery are vastly different than the physical and other skills required to practice psychiatry. Even within orthopaedics, the physical and other skills required for joint replacement are vastly different than the skills required for sports medicine. Credentialing and licensing entities need to focus on the individual physician and his or her fitness to safely provide patient care, not age.

Every medical staff should have a medical staff health committee to receive and investigate reports relating to a physician’s fitness for clinical privileges, health, physical and mental disorders, chemical dependency and well-being, etc. Age alone should not be the basis for reviewing and evaluating a physician’s fitness to safely provide patient care. And, it should never be assumed that youth assures that a physician is able to safely provide patient care.