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17 Articles in Volume 19, Issue #7
Analgesics of the Future: Inside the Potential of 3 Drug Delivery Systems
Balancing Pain Care - and Opioids - in the Aging Adult
Book Review: A Useful Guide for New Pain Practitioners
Correspondence: Opioid Tapering & Discontinuation
Effective Interventions for Post-Stroke Shoulder Subluxation and Pain
Family: Their Role and Impact on Pain Management
Introducing the "Phoenix Sign:" Improved Vascular Perfusion of the Dorsalis Pedis Artery after a Subanesthetic Dose of Lidocaine
Medication Management of Chronic Pain in Patients with Comorbid Cardiovascular Disease
Multisite Pain May Be Associated with Fractures in the Elderly
Reconciling the New HHS Opioid Tapering Guideline with CDC and State Policies
Research Insights: Impaired Motor Imagery in Chronic Pain Conditions
Tapentadol: A Real-World Look at Misuse, Abuse, and Diversion
Temporomandibular Disorders in Performance Artists (Part 2)
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Presenting as an Acute Stroke Mimic
Untangling Chronic Pain and Hyperarousal with Heart Rate Variability: A Case Report
What topicals exist for post-herpetic neuralgia pain?
When to Keep Your License: Older Physicians and Boundary Issues

When to Keep Your License: Older Physicians and Boundary Issues

Whether you have just retired or are planning to retire, consider these factors before deciding to keep your medical license.
Pages 8-9

A Guest Commentary

As the number of older physicians grows, so do concerns about healthcare’s aging workforce. With researchers forecasting a serious shortage of physicians by 2030, some experts worry about the number of physicians considering retirement. Within a decade, they note, more than one-third of today’s most experienced doctors will be age 65 or older. More troubling still, a growing number say they are interested in retiring early.

Others are equally concerned about the number of aging physicians who say they have no intention of retiring. Many will continue providing quality care for years, they admit, but no one can say how many will become dangerously impaired.

A screening process, such as the one under development at the Scripps Health system in San Diego, could solve this problem. If implemented, the new program will require screening for all physicians 70 and older. Competent clinicians would be cleared to continue working while those with impairments would face restrictions. Some may have privileges revoked.

Whether such programs catch on nationwide remains an open question. When Stanford Hospital and Clinics launched a similar program in 2013, it survived less than three years. However, when and if these conflicting issues are resolved, both groups of aging physicians—those who remain in practice and those who retire—are likely to face significant boundary-related challenges.

Age and experience do not always reduce risk - especially in the medical profession. (Image: iStock)

Experience Also Heightens Risk

When an accomplished Sherpa fell to his death leading others up Mt. Everest, an experienced climber explained why even guides sometimes fail to follow basic safety procedures. “They’re so fast and so efficient that sometimes they don’t bother to clip in… if you’ve done it a few hundred times, you can become a little complacent,” veteran climber Peter Athans told National Geographic in 2012.1

Something similar happens to senior physicians. They know the risks intellectually, but they feel they’ve outgrown them. They unclip themselves from the safety line. A dangerous combination of ethical complacency and professional arrogance takes over. After decades of practice, these senior physicians may believe their spotless record proves their innate goodness. Convinced that their morality has stood the test of time, they relax their vigilance. Less experienced doctors may need the discipline of rules and regulations, they imagine. They themselves are beyond that.

It’s this sense of invulnerability that trips up older and supposedly wiser clinicians. They start taking a more casual approach to patients, dismissing any complaints as par for the course. When staff and younger colleagues offer helpful suggestions, they ignore them. Even warnings from supervisors may be brushed aside until eventually, they spark disciplinary action.

Distinguishing between beneficial self-confidence and destructive overconfidence is not easy. Experienced surgeons were humbled to learn some time ago that a simple checklist could help them avoid elementary mistakes. The same kind of humility can help senior physicians avoid ethical and boundary-related missteps.

Keeping Your License is Not Always the Safest Bet

In a survey by CompHealth, a healthcare staffing company, more than half of the physician respondents said they hoped to continue working occasionally or part-time after hanging up their white coat.2 For them, retiring with a license offers an attractive option. The American Medical Association (AMA) seems to agree. On its website, the AMA urges retiring physicians to ask themselves if they may one day want to return to practice. To avoid the sometimes lengthy and costly process of renewing an expired license, notes the site, “Many physicians maintain their license for 2 to 5 years and stay current on their board certifications.”3

Individual states offer retired physicians a range of options that fall in between an active and expired license. Texas, for example, has an “official retired status” that exempts physicians from the registration process, fee, and continuing education (CME) requirements. It also prohibits retired doctors from engaging in clinical activities and prescribing or administering drugs to anyone in any state.

Pennsylvania goes further, offering an “active-retired license,” which allows retired physicians to provide care to and write prescriptions for themselves and immediate family members only. A fee is required but active-retired licensees do not have to maintain liability insurance or meet most of the state’s CME requirements.

Connecticut views “older and retired physicians as a possible resource both in addressing the state’s physician workforce shortage” and in providing care “to those most disadvantaged by the current healthcare system.” To encourage such participation in retirement, the state waives licensing fees, but reminds retirees that they are still obligated to meet CME requirements and adhere to professional standards.

I question the wisdom of retiring with a license of any sort. The hard truth is, you can’t have it both ways. I have seen too many physicians get into serious trouble because they wanted to give up the long hours and hard work of being a doctor, but weren’t willing to give up their professional identity and the sense of self-worth it gave them. So they kept their license but eased up on professional obligations. They failed to keep up with the latest research and let their insurance lapse. But when a friend or relative asked for medical help, they agreed to write a prescription or take a look at a sore throat.

The problem is that any time a licensed physician treats or prescribes, a doctor–patient relationship is created, including all that such a relationship implies. But where the law sees a patient, retired physicians see a neighbor’s sick child. Instead of taking a history, maintaining proper records, and scheduling a follow-up, they dash off a prescription or dispense some off-the-cuff medical advice. These casual consultations often go unreported—until something goes wrong. Once there is a problem, angry patients and patient families complain and board investigators quickly discover a pattern of violations. All too often, the physician’s license is then revoked, ending an otherwise exemplary career in disgrace.

If You Are Thinking of Retiring, Don’t Do It Cold Turkey

Treating people can be addictive. After the high of easing pain and curing illness, it’s hard for many physicians to contemplate, let alone embrace, a life without medical practice. Those who are not adequately prepared may go through a rough and lengthy adjustment period—a kind of withdrawal. The only way to avoid such withdrawal is to gradually taper off. That’s why virtually all experts suggest that physicians plan ahead for retirement, not just financially but emotionally as well.

First, look for ways to cut back without fully retiring. Employers are often reluctant to make exceptions to demanding workloads, but there are signs this is changing. With retirements looming and patient populations surging, employers are beginning to see the value in accommodating older physicians’ desire to gradually ease up. In an AMA presentation on “The Aging Physician,” Glen Gabbard, MD, spoke at length about the difficulties of successfully navigating the transition from active practice to retirement.4 A key suggestion: “Retirement should not be about leaving something—it should be about going to something.”

Last updated on: December 9, 2019
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