Health checks for older doctors to prove they're fit to practise

All Australian doctors aged 70 or over will have to undergo regular health checks to prove they are fit to practise, as part of a new plan to weed out dangerous medical professionals.

Those who work in isolation, such as solo GPs, will also face additional scrutiny, as will those who have received multiple proven complaints against them.

But doctors will not have to resit their exams every five years.

The announcement was made by the Medical Board of Australia on Tuesday, as part of planned professional performance requirements to pinpoint risky doctors.

Studies have found that badly performing doctors are more likely to be older men.

Other risk factors for poor performance include being trained overseas and practising away from other colleagues.

Following advice from an expert advisory group chaired by Professor Elizabeth Farmer, the board has announced that it will require all doctors aged 70 or older to undergo a health check every three years.

Doctors tend to retire later than many other professionals, with hundreds still practicing into their eighties.

The general health test for the older doctors could include cognitive, eyesight and hearing tests.

Medical board chair Dr Joanna Flynn said the measure had been proposed following legal advice that it would not constitute age discrimination and evidence that some people develop impaired thinking when they grew older, but did not realise it.

"The way that plays out is they don't learn and retain new knowledge," Dr Flynn said.

"They tend to go down pathways that are familiar to them. So they might miss an unusual diagnosis."

Dr Flynn said the extra screening was not about forcing older doctors into retirement, as many aged over 70 provided excellent care.

"For some people it may be a matter of just reducing their hours a bit, or not being on call, or not doing such complex surgery - not putting themselves in situations where they are under such stress and pressure," she said.

Of the 111,000 registered medical practitioners in Australia, an estimated 5596 are aged over 70 and 865 aged over 80 - about 6 per cent of the total.

Dr Bastian Seidel, president of the college of GPs, said he was concerned about tests for older doctors.

"A heavy-handed approach would fail the public and it would certainly fail practitioners who have given decades of their lives to the profession," Dr Seidel said.

"It would send quite a significant message to society to say once you are over a certain age, you're not contributing anymore."

However the changes were roundly welcomed by Australian Medical Association president Michael Gannon, who had worried that doctors would be forced to regularly resit their fellowship exams.

He said the health checks for those over 70 was preferable to forced retirements and would allow older doctors who are still providing "outstanding service" to work longer.

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Older doctors will not be the only group affected by the changes, with all medical practitioners to undergo at least 50 hours of annual professional development, which could include having patients and colleagues rate them.

Though these changes could take many years to implement, consultation is not scheduled to begin until 2020 and plenty of details are yet to be confirmed, including how many complaints should serve as a red flag.

A relatively small number of bad apples appear to be responsible for much of the poor practice, with just 3 per cent of Australia's medical workforce accounting for almost half of complaints.

There is concern that information about poorly-performing doctors is not being properly shared and further work was needed to prevent "unfit" medical students from entering the profession, or becoming specialists.

Anne Shortall, a medical negligence expert with Slater and Gordon lawyers, said she was often frustrated to see the same "small group" of doctors appearing again and again in her cases.

These doctors were allowed to continue to work, she said, and patients would see them unaware they'd been embroiled in previous court cases.

"If the client was aware then probably they wouldn't go to the doctor," Ms Shortall said.

This story Health checks for older doctors to prove they're fit to practise first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.