In the United States, mandatory retirement (or, as it’s more derisively known, forced retirement) policies are illegal for the majority of professions, but there are a few exceptions. When a pilot hits age 65, for instance, he’s asked to hand over his wings. Federal law requires special agents to retire even earlier, at age 57. The question of mandatory retirement for physicians came up recently in Physicians Practice.
There’s no current law dictating when doctors have to retire, but should there be? It’s a contentious topic that’s likely to raise the temperature in a room full of physicians, especially if they’re nearing the ages in question.
Thankfully, older physicians wouldn’t necessarily have to choose between working full-time and hanging up their coats and stethoscopes. A third, middle-of-the-road path exists. Let’s take a closer look at the question of mandatory retirement and why locum tenens offers such a worthwhile compromise.
Physicians Reject the Mandatory-Retirement Idea
An overwhelming 73 percent of respondents to a Modern Healthcare online poll said mandatory retirement was unnecessary for aging physicians. However, 77 percent of respondents did acknowledge the need for mandatory assessment programs testing clinical skill and overall health. Further, close to half (45 percent) felt that certain specialists, such as surgeons, should be subject to mandatory retirement.
Of the nearly 800 people who responded to the poll, more than 300 offered their personal views on the mandatory retirement question. Opinions ranged from outright opposition to qualified support.
“Mandatory retirement assumes cognitive decline is universal, which it is not,” one respondent said. “Frankly, the health system cannot afford to lose the manpower.”
Others acknowledged concerns about older physicians’ abilities to stay up to date on the latest regulations, technologies, and treatments. Many agreed that keeping up with the rapid developments in healthcare gets harder as physicians age, because they often have less time and energy to devote to attending conferences and reading medical journals.
Finding Common Ground
The one area where people on both sides seemed to agree applies to specialists whose jobs require fine motor skills, precise hand-eye coordination, and dexterity, among other physical demands. Respondents regularly mentioned neurologists, cardiologists, and emergency-medicine doctors.
Opinions differed on when routine testing of overall health and clinical skills should begin. Twenty-one percent said exams should kick in between ages 60 and 64, 28 percent said between 65 and 69, and the majority (32 percent) said they should take effect starting at age 70.
At its annual meeting last June, the American Medical Association (AMA) agreed to develop guidelines for assessing mental and physical health. According to the AMA, 1 in 4 U.S. doctors is now older than 65. While that figure might trouble other industries, experience has always been highly valued in medicine.
“Practicing medicine is not like controlling a machine in which hundreds could die instantly if a pilot’s reflexes are not optimal,” said Jane Orient, executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. “Doctors deal with one patient at a time. Most situations are not instantly life-threatening, and years of experience and good judgment count, not lightning reflexes and physical prowess.”
Orient acknowledged that some doctors — both young and old — face procedures they are incapable of performing, but she questioned who would be responsible for judging the quality of a physician’s skills. Specialty board certification used to be granted for life, and to require recertification now would be a significant change for affected doctors.
Going the Locum Tenens Route
Older physicians reading arguments for mandatory retirement may shake their heads in disbelief. They’re hardly ready to be put out to pasture. While retirement may be looming in the years ahead, many of these physicians still have the ability and drive to provide great care. That’s why full retirement may not be a good solution.
In this situation, locum tenens work may be exactly what they are looking for. The temporary nature of locums assignments offers income, freedom from the tedious responsibilities of teaching and staff management, and the flexibility to shape their own schedules. Support from locums also gives full-time physicians the time they need to keep their skills up to date.
After 20 or 30 years of practicing medicine on a regular work schedule, there’s nothing like the semi-retirement status that locums offers. It’s a breath of fresh air after being on call for countless late nights, holidays, and weekends. Locum physicians have the freedom to focus on nothing but treating patients.
Travel is one of the great benefits of retirement. With locums, doctors can travel the country well before they call it quits for good. Locum tenens work grants physicians the ability to earn a great living without being tied down by full-time practice. Many locum tenens staffing agencies not only handle the logistics of travel, but pay for it as well.
Retirement may be approaching, but that doesn’t mean patients and other healthcare practitioners can’t still benefit from older physicians’ incredible experience and talent. Locum tenens allows these highly skilled, experienced professionals to explore semi-retirement while traveling, earning a solid income, and — best of all — continuing to enjoy their passion for medicine.