As forensic evaluators, we are often asked to review and assess the cognition of aging colleagues. The premise often involves a minor mistake, a poor choice of words, or a lapse in judgment. A physician gets reported for having difficulty using a new electronic form, forgetting the dose of a brand new medication, or getting upset in a public setting. Those behaviors often lead to mandatory psychiatric evaluations. Those requirements are often perceived by the provider as an insult, and betrayal by peers despite many years of dedicated work.
Interestingly, we have noticed many independent evaluators and hospital administrators using this opportunity to send many of our colleagues to pasture. There seems to be an unspoken rule among some forensic evaluators that physicians should represent some form of apex of humanity, beyond reproach, and beyond any fault. Those evaluators will point to any mistake on cognitive scales as proof that the aging physician is no longer safe to practice.1 Forgetting that Jill is from Illinois in the Saint Louis University Mental Status Examination test or how to copy a three-dimensional cube on the Montreal Cognitive Assessment can cost someone their license.2 We are also aware of some evaluators even taking the step further and opining that physicians not only need to score adequately but also demonstrate cognition significantly above average to maintain their privileges.
There is certainly significant appeal in setting a high bar for physicians. In many ways, physicians are characterized in society by their astuteness, intelligence, and high ethical standards. Patients place their lives in the hands of physicians and should trust that those physicians have the cognitive tools to heal them. It could almost seem evident that physicians should have high IQs, score perfectly on screening tools for dementia, and complete a mandatory psychiatric evaluation without any reproach. Yet the reality is often more complex.
We have two main concerns about the idea that we should be intransigent with aging physicians. The first one is the vast differential diagnosis for minor mistakes. An aging physician refusing to comply with a new form or yelling at a clerk once when asked to learn a new electronic medical record are inappropriate though not specific assessments for dementia. Similarly, having significant difficulty learning a new electronic medical record system more often is a sign of ageism rather than cognitive impairment. Subsequently, when arriving for their evaluation, forgetting the date is a common sign of anxiety. A relatable analogy would be to compare the mistake with a medical student forgetting part of the anatomy while questioning by an attending during surgery. Imagine such medical students being referred to mandatory psychiatric evaluation when failing to answer a question during rounds.
In our practice, the most common reason for those minor mistakes during our clinical evaluation is anxiety. After all, patients who present for problems completely unrelated to cognitive decline make similar mistakes. Psychological stressors in physicians require no introduction. The concept is so prevalent and pervasive that it has its own name, “burnout.” Imagine having dedicated most of one’s life to a profession then being enumerated a list of complaints, having one’s privileges put on hold, then being told to complete an independent psychiatric evaluation. If burnout is in part caused by a lack of control, unclear job expectations, rapidly changing models of health care, and dysfunctional workplace dynamics, imagine the consequence of such a referral.
The militant evaluator will use jargon to vilify the reviewed physician. If the physician complains too voraciously, he will be described as having signs of frontotemporal dementia. If the physician comes with a written list of rebuttals, he will be described as having memory problems requiring aids. If the physician is demoralized and quiet, he will be described as being withdrawn and apathetic. If the physician refuses to use or has difficulty with new forms or electronic systems, he will be described as having “impaired executive function,” an ominous term that surely should not be associated with a practicing physician.
The second concern arises from problems with the validity and use of diagnoses like mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is considered to be a transition stage when one maintains “normal activities of daily living, and normal general cognitive function.”3 The American Psychiatric Association Textbook of Psychiatry mentions that there are “however, many cases of nonprogressive MCI.” Should a disorder with generally normal cognition and unclear progression to a more severe disorder require one to be dispensed of their privileges? Should any disorder trump an assessment of functioning?
It is our experience that many if not most physicians’ practice of medicine is not a job but a profession that defines who they are. As such, their occupational habits are an overly repeated and ingrained series of maneuvers analogous to so-called muscle memory. This kind of ritualistic pattern is precisely the kind of cognition that may persist as one starts to have some deficits. This requires the evaluator to be particularly sensitive and cognizant that one may still be able to perform professionally despite some mild but notable deficits. While it is facile to diagnose someone with MCI and justify removing their license, a review of their actual clinical skills is, despite being more time consuming, more pertinent to the evaluation.
In practice, we find that many cases lie in a gray area, which is hard to define. Physicians may come to our office for an evaluation after having said something odd at work. Maybe they misdosed a medication on one occasion. Maybe they wrote the wrong year on a chart. However, if the physician was 30 years old, would we consider any one of those incidents significant? As a psychiatrist rather than a physician practicing the specialty in review, it is particularly hard and sometimes unwise to condone or sanction individual incidents.
Evaluators find solace in neuropsychological testing. However the relevance to the safety of patients is unclear. Many of those tests end up being a simple proxy for age. A physicians’ ability to sort words or cards at a certain speed might correlate to cognitive performance but has unclear significance to the ability to care for patients. Using such tests becomes a de facto age limit on the practice of medicine. It seems essential to expand and refine our repertoire of evaluation tools for the assessment of physicians. As when we perform capacity evaluation in the hospital, we enlist the assistance of the treating team in understanding the questions being asked for a patient, medical boards could consider creating independent multidisciplinary teams where psychiatry has a seat along with the relevant specialties of the evaluee. Likewise, the assessment would benefit from a broad review of the physicians’ general practice rather than the more typical review of one or two incidents.
Burnout: A concept that rebrands mental illness for professionals
We are promoting a more individualized approach by medical boards to the many issues of the aging physician. Retiring is no longer the dream of older physicians, but rather working in the suitable position where their contributions, clinical experience, and wisdom are positive contributions to patient care. Furthermore, we encourage medical boards to consider more nuanced decisions. A binary approach fits few cases that we see. Surgeons are a prime example of this. A surgeon in the early stages of Parkinsonism may be unfit to perform surgery but very capable of continuing to contribute to the well-being of patients in other forms of clinical work, including postsurgical care that doesn’t involve physical dexterity. Similarly, medical boards could consider other forms of partial restrictions, including a ban on procedures, a ban on hospital privileges, as well as required supervision or working in teams. Accumulated clinical wisdom allows older physicians to be excellent mentors and educators for younger doctors. There is no simple method to predict which physicians may have the early stages of a progressive dementia, and which may have a stable MCI. A yearly reevaluation if there are no further complaints, is the best approach to determine progression of cognitive problems.
Few crises like the current COVID-19 pandemic can better remind us of the importance of the place of medicine in society. Many states have encouraged retired physicians to contribute their knowledge and expertise, putting themselves in particular risk because of their age. It is a good time to be reminded that we owe them significant respect and care when deciding to remove their license. We are encouraged by the diligent efforts of medical boards in supervising our colleagues but warn against zealot evaluators who use this opportunity to force physicians into retirement. We also encourage medical boards to expand their tools and approaches when facing such cases, as mislabeled cognitive diagnoses can be an easy scapegoat of a poor understanding of the more important psychological and biological factors in the evaluation.
1. Tariq SH et al. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2006;14:900-10.
2. Nasreddine Z. mocatest.org. Version 2004 Nov 7.
3. Hales RE et al. The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Psychiatry. Washington: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2014.
Dr. Badre is a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego and an expert in correctional mental health. He holds teaching positions at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of San Diego. He teaches medical education, psychopharmacology, ethics in psychiatry, and correctional care. Among his writings in chapter 7 in the book “Critical Psychiatry: Controversies and Clinical Implications” (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2019). He has no disclosures.
Dr. Abrams is a forensic psychiatrist and attorney in San Diego. He is an expert in addictionology, behavioral toxicology, psychopharmacology and correctional mental health. He holds a teaching positions at the University of California, San Diego. Among his writings are chapters about competency in national textbooks. Dr. Abrams has no disclosures.