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Doctors have sell-by dates

March 3, 2013

I spoke with a young man today and despite my best attempts at diversion, the conversation drifted to medicine.

“Do doctors have to stay up to date?” he asked. He seemed convinced that his elderly doctor’s knowledge was outdated.

“Yes,” I replied. “I have no doubt that your doctor is up to date. Why would you think otherwise?”

“He is very old. Whenever I ask him about my problem, he gives me the same answer.”

I was tempted to point out that the likely reason for this was that there is no other answer to give. Sometimes a patient must be told what he needs to hear; not what he wants to hear.

“Go back to your doctor and tell him what you have told me.” I implored. “If you are unsure about something, push him to explain it until you are satisfied. I think the problem here is rooted in communication. You need to be honest with him. He needs to be honest with you. It is your duty to tell him if you don’t understand something. It is his duty to make sure that you understand everything he says.”

Hours later, the conversation still rings in my ears and fills my mind with restless agitation. Not unlike many of their patients, older doctors are often victims of ageism.

I routinely refer my patients to older colleagues.

There is no reason why a doctor’s knowledge should ever become outdated. Physicians are committed to lifelong learning. In order to renew an annual practice licence, a physician must demonstrate that he or she has kept abreast of current advances in the field.

Are these requirements sufficient? I believe so. Doctors were all reared in a competitive field. No doctor wants to fall behind and risk losing the respect of peers.

Younger doctors may be more tech-savvy and may have superior communication skills training, but older doctors harbour a wealth of experience and often demonstrate an astonishingly broad skill set. The young and the old complement each other and both contribute to the community.

A doctor reaches his sell-by date only when he is no longer capable or willing to continue learning. 

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