This is the first in a MedPage Today series on the controversial but growing trend among healthcare institutions to screen physicians of a certain age with cognitive and physical dexterity tests.
Interventional cardiologist Jerrold Glassman, MD, spent the first week of March schussing down Park City’s powdery slopes. He even braved black diamond runs, belying the fact that this July, he’ll be 69 years old.
“A 60-year-old today is not the 60-year-old of three decades ago,” he said proudly. “Skiing is my passion and I’m going back up tomorrow.”
He and his ski buddies, older physicians like himself, dodge moguls some 30 days a year. A new app tracks his stats, like altitude, speed and distance, and said he did 25 downhill miles that day.
Glassman has no plans to retire from the cath lab — or from skiing — anytime soon. But in coming weeks, medical executive committees for his 3,000-physician Scripps Health system in San Diego are expected to require screening for all physicians age 70 and older for cognitive impairment, among other things. It’s to be a condition for recredentialing every two years.
Doctors up for review will sit in a room alone, with no pencil or mobile aid, while they answer dozens of questions in the MicroCog, a computer-based test also used by the Air Force. The test scores thinking skills, such as the ability to solve simple math problems, count backwards from 100, or find similarities among shapes or pictures.
Following the computer test comes history, physical, and mental health screens that review issues like substance use and tests for hearing and vision. They fill out a form that asks about sleep patterns, continuing medical education, patient load, and typical hours at work. The entire process takes about three or four hours.
The policy is a major change for the system, acknowledged James LaBelle, MD, chief medical officer for Scripps Health. “About 150 physicians 70 or older are due to be recredentialed in 2019 and all would be subject to the policy,” he said. LaBelle did not respond when asked whether the two-year recredentialing cycle would subject a similar number to mandatory screening in 2020 — which would bring the total to about 10% of Scripps’ medical staff.
An undisclosed number of allied health professionals such as dentists and optometrists who seek status as a Scripps staff member are also covered by the policy, LaBelle said.
For most hospitals around the country, “this is pretty new. I do think Scripps is leading in trying to understand how to manage the aging physician,” he said, adding, “I hope it’s going to be easier than I think it’s going to be.”
Failing the MicroCog won’t automatically end a physician’s credentialing at Scripps. But it will flag him or her for further evaluation, perhaps prompting recommendations for more rigorous fitness-for-duty review lasting several days. Physicians who perform poorly there would see their ability to practice limited or revoked.
Come to PAPA
For Scripps and many other organizations, the plan is for screening to be done by PAPA, the University of California, San Diego’s PACE Aging Physician Assessment program — said to be the largest to provide this service in the nation. (PACE is an acronym for Physician Assessment and Clinical Education.) Many other organizations perform various screenings in house, with or without cognitive computer tests, or are working on plans to contract with four other service providers.
Surgeons and interventionalists like Glassman will likely also undergo PAPA’s 15-minute dexterity screen — in which they must correctly place shaped pegs into grooves in a board.
Although leadership’s commitment to a uniform policy is set at Scripps, some details are still being worked out, like how the system’s peer review committees will repurpose those long-time senior physicians who fail the tests but can still provide value to the workforce. LaBelle suggested the exact process Scripps will adopt “is a moving target” that may change, but added, “I have no doubt we’re going to learn a lot over the next few years around how to do this right.”
PACE is a multiple-day testing program which began 22 years ago to assess doctors referred by the Medical Board of California after negligence or behavioral issues threatened their license. Of the 1,000 physicians referred to PACE, an undisclosed number had age-related cognitive impairment that resulted in colleagues’ concerns, but the physicians continued to practice because the complicated peer review process takes a long time, and doctors don’t want to report on each other.
“In all honesty, when we started PAPA, it was because we saw so many wonderful careers that ended in disgrace and tragedy,” said PACE/PAPA director David Bazzo, MD. “Time and time again, the message we heard was ‘Gosh, I wish I had known, or I wish I had stopped or retired one case sooner,’ maybe because of a cognitive issue or dexterity issue. The regret is there.”
Absent screening, procedures for dealing with accusations of physician impairment, can take years. For example, a California medical board filing indicated that concerns about one gastroenterologist with a tremor were expressed internally in 2015, including that he “had forgotten that he was on call … exhibited occasional forgetfulness and confusion and had shown up on at least two occasions at the wrong surgery center.” The medical board didn’t receive a complaint until January 2017, however, and another 15 months elapsed before his license was revoked.
So it’s understandable that proactive screening is gaining traction. “I know it provokes a lot of anxiety, but in the end, it’s really around assessing how much deeper a doctor needs to be looked into, or doesn’t need to be looked into,” LaBelle said. It’s not a slam dunk that they would be sent packing — unless they refuse the tests, LaBelle said. “That’s a hard stop.”
With five PAPA contracts with healthcare organizations or medical groups now active and three more pending, Bazzo sees the demand for late career physician screening as a service line in growth mode. He gives talks about the process to hospitals and medical groups around the country, and estimates 10% of health systems now have some form of screening triggered only by a birthday, even if limited to certain departments. “It’s on the national radar,” he said.
Outside San Diego, other hospitals and health systems have also begun screening their senior clinicians, with or without the MicroCog. Among them are Stanford Hospital, Clinics in Palo Alto, and Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California; Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas; and the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville. Many others have policies they declined to discuss with MedPage Today.
An American Medical Association report discussed at the November interim meeting noted that 300,752 physicians were 65 years or older in 2017, up from 241,641 in 2013, and 120,000 were “actively engaged in patient care,” up from 97,000. The literature is clear, an AMA report said, that cognitive and physical skills generally decline with age, and physicians are not excepted.
That report urged delegates to adopt principles to guide screening senior physicians for competency. “It is critical that physicians take the lead in developing standards … to head off a call for nationally implemented mandatory retirement ages or imposition of guidelines by others that are not evidenced based,” it said. The suggested guidelines failed to win approval but are being rewritten.
Clearly the issue is a touchy one at many organizations around the country, especially those with many clinicians who’ve long served as their hospitals’ elder statespeople and may serve on influential committees.
Asked if UCSD’s hospitals and clinics screened their senior physicians, a communications director replied, “UC San Diego Health is in discussion on a potential policy, however, it hasn’t established one because the science on the topic is unsettled.”
That prompted a strongly worded retort from William Perry, PhD, vice chair of the UCSD department of psychiatry and a PACE program psychologist.
“The data is fairly robust in two domains,” regarding the impact of age on physician care, Perry told MedPage Today, emphasizing that the communications director’s message was patently incorrect. “Abilities decline after a certain age and, as one gets older, adverse outcomes increase,” he said, citing unpublished data from PACE and other studies. “There’s no denying it; as we get older a lot of our functions decline.”
Perry said that these days, he’s receiving calls every week from around the country wanting him to give talks. “Organizations in North Carolina and New Jersey are putting together policies. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when this will become standard,” he said.
“I’m struck by how much science has demonstrated a connection between aging and impaired physician practice,” said Richard Barton, an attorney who represents physicians, medical groups, and hospitals and helped author a paper on the topic in 2015 for a Sacramento-based physician wellness group. In San Diego alone, Barton knows of three organizations, including Rady Children’s Hospital and UCSD Medical Center, who are also working on late career screening policies due to concern that some older physicians are at higher risk for causing patients harm.
Glassman, who has practiced at 655-bed Scripps Mercy Hospital since 1979 and was chief of staff for four years, said most older Scripps physicians favor the idea. “It’s kind of mom and apple pie. How can you say a physician who is not competent should be allowed to practice?” The big question is, after a clinician fails, which follow-up tests correctly determine whether an experienced physician can still practice?
One of Glassman’s fellow skiers, Jeff Sandler, MD, a Scripps endocrinologist, will be 72 this June and supports the idea of screening doctors his age. “If you think you shouldn’t be screened, maybe you shouldn’t be practicing,” he said. “It sounds discriminatory, but we have to protect the public from bad actors.”
But the issue remains controversial because screening based solely on age smacks of illegal discrimination and the age cutoffs are inherently arbitrary.
Next: Now comes the pushback