COVID-19 prompted an increased, dire public need for physicians. In response, a large number of retired physicians selflessly opted to help by rejoining the medical community. Although such physicians were largely acting with focus on the greater good, people began to question whether they were up to the task—especially returning surgeons.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the Federation of State Medical Boards came up with a collection of state-issued guidelines in an effort to assist physicians who left retirement to help out during the pandemic. These guidelines focused on expediting the licensure process for healthcare workers whose licenses were either inactive or had expired.

An article published in ENTtoday noted that although it is quite rare for surgeons to continue operating when they are at an advanced age, such physicians do frequently function as role models for their younger colleagues. Given the varying skills and natures of every physician, choosing a specific mandatory retirement age is challenging.

ACS Does Not Offer a Definitive Retirement Age

While recognizing that physicians are exposed to age-related decline both physically and cognitively beginning around age 65, the American College of Surgeons (ACS) does not offer a definitive retirement age in its guidelines, noting that every physician’s health and wellness should be regarded on an individual basis. Rather, the ACS suggests that physicians between the ages of 65 and 70 should undertake a baseline physical examination, along with vision testing and an online neurocognitive test. They should report any deficits and should periodically repeat these assessments. Recognizing that not all physicians are willing to accept the realities of aging, the ACS also suggests that the onus is also on colleagues and healthcare staff to report any possible physical or cognitive deterioration.

An article written by Ralph B. Blasier, MD, JD, and published in Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research touches on another point of concern regarding physicians of advanced age practicing medicine. Older physicians are way less attuned to novel technology applications, given that they received an education decades ago, when the state of medicine was quite different. Dr. Blasier urges physicians who are of retirement age to accept that their surgical skills will start to decline, but that does not equate to a less-valued existence or imminent death. He encourages physicians to bear in mind that retirement age is an excellent time for physicians to serve as educational resources for new students in the field.