May 17 (UPI) -- The age of a physician may increase a patient's risk of dying in the hospital, according to a new study from Harvard Medical School.
The research says patients treated by older hospital-based internists, or hospitalists, are more likely to die within a month of admission than those treated by younger physicians.
Researchers found death rates in patients treated by doctors 40 and younger were 10.8 percent, while the rate for patients treated by physicians 60 or older was 12.1 percent.
"This difference is not merely statistically significant, but clinically important -- it is comparable to the difference in death rates observed between patients at high risk for heart disease who are treated with proper heart medications and those who receive none," Dr. Anupam Jena, associate professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School and an internal medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said in a press release.
The study said differences in a patient's mortality rate with physicians in their 40s and 50s were less pronounced -- 11.1 percent and 11.3 percent, respectively.
Researchers did find, however, that patient death rates slowly increased as doctors aged. Conversely, the study says, age made no difference in mortality outcomes for doctors who managed large numbers of patients.
"Residency training sharpens the clinical skills of newly minted physicians because it exposes them to a great number of cases, but as physicians get farther away from residency their clinical skill may begin to decline somewhat," Yusuke Tsugawa, researcher in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said. "Our observation that physicians' age is inconsequential so long as they treat a high volume of patients supports that notion."
Researchers also said it's important that physicians participate in continuing medical education courses throughout their careers to improve patient outcomes.
"Older physicians bring invaluable richness of knowledge and depth of experience, yet their clinical skills may begin to lag behind over time," Jena said. "The results of our study suggest the critical importance of continuing medical education throughout a doctor's entire career, regardless of age and experience."
The study was published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal.