There have been expressions of concern in many medical quarters over how best to handle physician aging. As practitioners grow older they may experience reduced cognitive and physical capacity. With patient safety rightly paramount for all concerned with healthcare—and given some, admittedly inconclusive, evidence indicating the patients of some older physicians have had suboptimal outcomes, these issues need to be taken seriously.
What is discussed less often is how healthcare organizations can make the most of the accumulated experience and wisdom of older physicians.
While American culture tends to promote youthfulness as its human ideal, in many cultures elders are accorded places of honor. Japan’s Keirō no Hi (Honoring Elders Day), for example, is a national holiday focused on the appreciation of older people. In her memoir, On Becoming Fearless, journalist Arianna Huffington cites Greece, where she grew up. In Greece, she says, "the idea of honoring old age, indeed identifying it with wisdom and closeness to God, is in startling contrast to the way we treat aging in America."
Americans don’t lack all respect for the wisdom of age, of course. Native Americans honor elders and call upon them to pass on tribal traditions to younger generations. In the legal profession, formal programs matching younger lawyers with experienced mentors are growing, driven by a breakdown of informal mentoring relationships within firms, a breakdown mainly driven by economic pressures.
Mentorship Begins with Support
Could formal mentoring arrangements and other measures to glean the expertise of older physicians be made in healthcare organizations? See our article, "The Challenges and Opportunities of the Aging Physician" for a sketch of just such a program. The program could be integrated into an organization’s other initiatives supporting physician well being and could include not only opportunities for older physicians to mentor younger ones, but also advisor roles on care teams, scholarly and scientific work and other functions honoring and utilizing the older physician’s accumulated experience and wisdom.
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