Am Fam Physician. 2022;106(4):450-452
Author disclosure: No relevant financial relationships.
One of my practice partners noted in the electronic health record that our older colleague, M.C., recently prescribed a questionable medication to a patient. During discussions with other physicians in the practice, we recalled several conversations with M.C. in which he has talked about outdated treatments. My colleagues and I are unsure about whether M.C. is just not staying current with updated guidelines or whether he might have some cognitive issues. M.C. is well past traditional retirement age, and he has asserted that he will never retire. What are our professional obligations in this situation? Do we handle this ourselves, or do we turn to others? Who determines when a physician is no longer able to practice safely?
There are many reasons why a physician's competence to practice medicine may decline over time. Optimal retirement age varies by person, and most medical practices do not have built-in retirement mandates. Age-related decline in cognitive function among physicians, even to the point of overt dementia, may become increasingly common as the U.S. physician population ages. Current estimates are that over the next 10 years, more than 40% of practicing physicians will be 65 years or older,1 an age group in which 11.7% of individuals self-report cognitive decline. 2 Although cognitive impairment is less common among highly educated individuals (such as physicians),3 population data indicate that as many as one in five physicians older than 70 years may have mild cognitive impairment, and about one in 15 may have some form of dementia.4
For other physicians, declining professional competency may simply be a matter of failing to stay current with evolving guidelines and advances in medicine. It has been long known that the more years a physician is in practice, the more likely the physician will have declining knowledge about current standards of care.5 Nearly two-thirds of physicians across multiple specialties report spending insufficient time keeping current in their area of practice.6 This problem is reflected in data showing that 4% to 13% of physicians in varying specialties fail their recertification examinations,7 and nearly 6% of family physicians do not even attempt recertification.8
Clinical performance can also be impaired by multiple stressors unrelated to age or cognitive impairment, such as family or financial problems and personal medical conditions, including mental health issues and substance use.
Physician colleagues or patients are the people most likely to express concerns about a physician who may not be practicing at the optimal standard of care. The nature of the concern and the circumstances can help determine the best course of action.
Some concerns can be handled within the practice and easily resolved. For example, a colleague may appear to be outdated in one area of practice but is otherwise performing well. This may be remedied by self-assessment through continuing education activities and peer monitoring with direct observation and chart reviews.9,10 Some health care systems even offer formal peer-monitoring programs. Other possibilities include limiting scope of practice to areas in which the physician's competence is not in question or reassignment to alternative duties such as administrative work rather than clinical practice. These reassignments can allow physicians to continue to contribute within their level of competence. However, this approach is appropriate only if there are minor concerns about the physician's practice and there are no threats to patient safety.
If an underperforming physician refuses to accept peer feedback or alternative responsibilities or if more serious concerns that involve potential threats to patient safety arise, it then becomes appropriate for colleagues (or students or residents working with the physician) to bring lapses in patient care to the attention of an appropriate supervisor (e.g., clinic director, department chair, hospital or health system credentialing committee) or, in many cases, to report those concerns to the state medical board.
The Federation of State Medical Boards, which represents all medical boards in the United States, has a guideline stating that physicians have a duty to report to their state medical board “anytime there is evidence or information that appears to show that a physician is incompetent, guilty of negligence, guilty of a violation of the medical practice act, engaging in inappropriate relationships with patients, is mentally or physically unable to practice safely, or has an alcohol or drug abuse problem.”11 Similarly, the American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics states that physicians have an “obligation to report incompetent or unethical conduct that may put patients at risk.”12
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