The ageing surgeon: a qualitative study of expert opinions on assuring performance and supporting safe career transitions among older surgeons

BMJ Qual Saf. 2020 Feb;29(2):113-121. doi: 10.1136/bmjqs-2019-009596. Epub 2019 Jul 30.


Background: Unlike some other safety critical professions, there is no mandatory age of retirement for doctors, including surgeons. Medical regulators in Australia are implementing additional checks on doctors from the age of 70. We describe expert opinions on assuring performance and supporting career transitions among older surgeons.

Methods: In this qualitative study, experts in four countries were purposively selected for their expertise in surgical governance. Experts responded to interviews (Australia, New Zealand and UK) or a survey (Canada). A tiered framework of interventions was developed by integrating findings with previous literature and responsive regulation theory.

Results: 52 experts participated. Participants valued the contribution of senior surgeons, while acknowledging that age-related changes can affect performance. Participants perceived that identity, relationships and finances influence retirement decisions. Experts were divided on the need for age-specific testing, with some favouring whole-of-career approaches to assuring safe care. A lack of validated tools for assessing performance of older surgeons was highlighted. Participants identified three options for addressing performance concerns-remediate, restrict or retire-and emphasised the need for co-ordinated and timely responses.

Conclusion: Experts perceive the need for a staged approach to assessing the performance of older surgeons and tailoring interventions. Most older surgeons are seen to make decisions around career transitions with self-awareness and concern for patient safety. Some older surgeons may benefit from additional guidance and support from employers and professional colleges. A few poorly performing older surgeons, who are recalcitrant or lack insight, require regulatory action to protect patient safety. Developing robust processes to assess performance, remediate deficits and adjust scopes of practice could help to support safe career transitions at any age.

Keywords: governance; healthcare quality improvement; patient safety; surgery.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Clinical Competence
  • Expert Testimony*
  • Female
  • Health Care Surveys / methods*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • New Zealand
  • Patient Safety*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Quality of Health Care*
  • Retirement / standards
  • Surgeons*