Is the Age of Your Surgeon a Risk Factor?

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Going into surgery, most people would assume that the last thing they have to worry about is the age of their surgeon. After all, doesn’t age imply wisdom and experience? Yes — but what about how many patients he/she takes on or how many surgeries he/she performs? According to a new study, volume could trump age when it comes to a surgeon’s operation success rate — and the added risk you may be facing when going under the knife.

Previous studies have fingered older surgeons as having higher mortality rates due to a slide in skill during the operations they have performed. However, the researchers left out one important factor — volume. Thanks to a new study, you can rest assured that it’s not a surgeon’s age you have to be concerned with, but perhaps instead if he/she is taking on too few surgeries on average. Doing fewer surgeries could mean that surgeons — of any age — are not keeping up with the newest techniques or keeping their skills sharp.

 Researchers at the University of Michigan Health System think that patients about to undergo surgery should be more concerned with how many operations a surgeon does, as opposed to their age. Older surgeons (those past 60) who don’t have a high enough volume of surgeries to deal with are likely to have higher mortality rates. However, older surgeons who kept up their surgical caseloads actually had comparable success rates to younger surgeons ages 41 to 50.

 The study, which will be published in September’s issue of Annals of Surgery, looked specifically at the rates of younger and older surgeons who performed complex cardiovascular or cancer operations. Researchers looked at data from the National Medicare Inpatient Files and reviewed major cancer and cardiovascular procedures (460,738 in total) that were performed on patients between 1998 and 1999.

 The study placed the surgeons doing these procedures in three age groups, 40 and under, 41 to 50, and 60 and up. Those in the 40-and-under group and the 41-to-50 group had similar mortality rates, where surgeons in the 60-and- up group who had fewer procedures to do actually had higher mortality rates.

 Another interesting finding of the study was that less experienced, younger surgeons actually had comparable patient mortality rates to that of their older, more experienced colleagues. This shows that just because a surgeon may not have as many operations under his/her belt, doesn’t mean you are at risk. Younger surgeons are just as competent as older surgeons who have more experience than they do.

 According to the study’s lead author, Jennifer F. Waljee, MD, MPH, “This study’s results should be very encouraging not only for patients, but also for younger and older surgeons whose operative skills may previously have been the subject of scrutiny. The bottom line is that for most procedures the age of the surgeon is not an important predictor of operative risk for a patient. The effect of surgeon age was largely limited to those surgeons with lower procedure volumes.”

 So, it turns out that the old adage “use it or lose it,” applies to all surgeons, regardless of their age. The researchers noted that instead of focusing on a surgeon’s age, they would be better off to pick the right practitioner for their case by assessing other characteristics instead, such as how many surgeries similar to the one you are about to undergo they do in a year and their success rates. These are better predictors of how a surgeon will possibly fare than if they are older. After all, it’s always good to take stock in a practitioner’s experience.

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