The absence of evidence-based guidelines makes decision making very difficult for Medical Boards in attempting to ensure that normal cognitive decline in ageing medical practitioners does not compromise patient safety, according to an article in the latest Medical Journal of Australia.
Dr Robert Adler and Dr Conn Constantinou of the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria say that, when it comes to the medical profession, the question of timely retirement is linked to issues of public safety.
"This places a particular responsibility on medical practitioners, their colleagues and medical regulatory authorities," Dr Adler said.
The ageing process affects cognitive speed and short-term memory as well as those cognitive faculties involved with problem solving.
"Knowing when to give up practice is an important decision for most doctors, and critically difficult for some," Dr Adler said.
"The prospect of retirement may be daunting for doctors who feel they have few rewarding recreational or professional options to satisfy the demands of an active mind."
The authors suggest several steps a doctor can take to accommodate cognitive changes.
"Many procedural specialists choose to cease procedural work. Older practitioners can adjust to some cognitive changes by allocating more time to each patient, using memory aids and by seeking second opinions."
The authors say the problem facing Medical Boards is that there are no agreed guidelines to help decide what level of cognitive impairment in a doctor may put the public at risk.
"Compulsory continuing professional development and re-certification seem inevitable."