Mid-career surgeons 'are safest'

Surgeon "Trust me - I'm a doctor". But should age come into it?

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If you are due to have an operation, it might be worth checking the age of your surgeon beforehand, say researchers who claim age influences acumen.

Although inexperience is an obvious disadvantage, having been in the profession for decades is not desirable either, they say.

Middle-aged surgeons in their 40s and late 30s are safest, they suggest.

The small study, published at bmj.com, looked at operative complications across five hospitals in France.

Age over experience

This revealed that patients undergoing one surgical procedure - thyroid gland removal - were more likely to have complications when operated on by inexperienced surgeons and those who had been in the job for more than 20 years.

The analysis looked at more than 3,500 of these operations carried out by 28 surgeons.

Start Quote

Given the pace of change in medical innovation it is certain that a surgeon at the end of his career will be undertaking a nearly completely different range of operations than at the outset”

End Quote Prof Mike Larvin Royal College of Surgeons

The researchers chose to look thyroidectomy because the procedure is, generally, carried out in the same way by all surgeons and has not changed substantially over the past few decades.

The link they found between a surgeon's age and complication rates was irrespective of how complex the surgical case list was, which suggests it wasn't because the older, more experienced surgeons were seeing the "harder-to-treat" patients.

But experts stress the studies findings are not conclusive and more investigations are needed to ensure surgeons stay on top form.

The researchers from the University of Lyon said: "Optimum individual performance in thyroid surgery cannot be passively achieved or maintained by accumulating experience.

"Factors contributing to poor performance in very experienced surgeons should be explored further."

Prof Mike Larvin, of England's Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), said it was important for surgeons to keep honing their skills.

"Given the pace of change in medical innovation it is certain that a surgeon at the end of his career will be undertaking a nearly completely different range of operations than at the outset.

"This interesting study shows the importance of lifelong learning for surgeons - something the RCS supports by directly running courses for trainees and consultants and quality assuring courses run by others.

"We have also set out requirements for continuing professional development for medical revalidation, a system of regular five-year check-ups on doctor competence, which starts at the end of this year."

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