When choosing a surgeon, you might want to look for more than just a nice bedside manner and steady hands. The doctor’s age could also make the difference between an easy recovery and one full of woe.
After analyzing data from more than 3,500 thyroid procedures by 28 surgeons in five academic hospitals in France, researchers found the lowest rate of complications from doctors who were between the ages of 35 and 50.
The scientists looked at two major complications that can result from thyroid surgery: permanent recurrent laryngeal nerve palsy and hypoparathyroidism. Overall, they reported in the British medical journal BMJ, between two and three percent of patients suffered these complications.
The risk for developing both problems, though, was higher if surgeons had just a few or many years of experience. Those with 20 or more years in the business, for example, accounted for 27 of 49 cases of recurrent laryngeal nerve palsy and 39 of 78 cases of hypoparathyroidism, or slightly more than half of each problem. The vast majority of other cases were associated with surgeons who had four years of experience or fewer.
Surgeons with between 5 and 20 years of experience had the best outcomes, and those doctors were generally between 35 and 50 years old. It is possible, the researchers warn, that more experienced surgeons might end up doing more surgeries, though a surgeon’s daily schedule didn’t seem to make a difference in outcomes. It’s also quite possible that other types of surgeries could produce a different set of results.
But one worry is that mental fatigue might set in later in the career of a surgeon who performs repetitive procedures. The researchers recommend recertification programs for older surgeons, focusing on mental coaching and attention to performance.
“Our findings also suggest that a surgeon cannot achieve or maintain top performance passively by accumulating experience,” they wrote. “Individual feedback based on outcome indicators might increase awareness about performance and improve safety in surgical practice.”