With Repetitions Surgeons Gain Informal Knowledge, Such as “Muscle Memory”

(p. C6) Imagine you’ve been admitted to the hospital and you’re meeting the physician taking care of you for the first time. Who are you hoping walks through that door? Would you rather they be in their 50s with a good amount of gray hair, or in their 30s, just a few years out of residency?

In a study published in 2017, one of us (Dr. Jena) and colleagues set out to shed some light on the role of age when it came to internists who treat patients in hospitals. These physicians, called hospitalists, provide the majority of care for elderly patients hospitalized in the U.S. with some of the most common acute illnesses, such as serious infections, organ failure and cardiac problems.

. . .

. . ., the results suggested if the over-60 doctors took care of 1,000 patients, 13 patients who died in their care would have survived had they been cared for by the under-40 doctors. We repeated the analysis using 60- and 90-day mortality rates, in case longer term outcomes might have been different, but again, the pattern persisted: Younger doctors had better outcomes than their more experienced peers.

. . .

Younger doctors possess clinical knowledge that is more current. If older doctors haven’t kept up with the latest advances in research and technology, or if they aren’t following the latest guidelines, their care may not be as good as that of their younger peers.

. . .

. . ., a separate study by Dr. Jena and colleagues looked at about 900,000 Medicare patients who underwent common non-elective major surgeries (for example, emergency hip fracture repair or gall bladder surgery) performed by about 46,000 surgeons of varying age.

. . .

The results showed that unlike hospitalists, surgeons got better with age. Their patient mortality rates had modest but significant declines as they got older: mortality was 6.6% for surgeons under 40, 6.5% for surgeons age 40-49, 6.4% for surgeons age 50-59, and 6.3% for surgeons over age 60.

Clearly something different was happening here. It may be that for hospitalists, the benefit of steadily increasing experience starts to be outweighed by their waning knowledge of the most up-to-date care. It’s different for surgeons, though, who hone many of their skills in the OR. Surgeons build muscle memory through repetition, working in confined spaces with complex anatomy. They learn to anticipate technical problems before they happen and plan around them based on prior experience. Over time, they build greater technical skills across a wider variety of scenarios, learn how to best avoid complications, and choose better surgical strategies.

What does this mean for all of us as patients when we meet a new doctor? Taking studies of hospitalists and surgeons together, it’s clear that a doctor’s age isn’t something that can be dismissed out of hand—age does matter—but nor can it be considered in isolation. If we’re concerned about the quality of care we’re receiving, the questions worth asking aren’t “How old are you?” or even “How many years of experience do you have?” but rather “Do you have a lot of experience caring for patients in my situation?” or “What do you do to stay current with the research?”

For the full essay, see:

Anupam B. Jena and Christopher Worsham. “Do Younger or Older Doctors Get Better Results?” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 8, 2023): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the essay was updated July 8, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

The essay quoted above is adapted from the book:

Jena, Anupam B., and Christopher M. Worsham. Random Acts of Medicine: The Hidden Forces That Sway Doctors, Impact Patients, and Shape Our Health. New York: Doubleday, 2023.

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