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What to do with aging physicians

January 12th, 2012

by Dr. Kenneth H. Cohn

Last month, I had the pleasure to give a three-hour summary of my two-day seminar at the annual meeting of the Oklahoma Hospital Association. One question that I have mulled over came from a CEO:

"I have an 83-year-old general practitioner that I just don't know what to do with any more. He has a long history with our hospital and has admitted many patients over the last five decades, but the question I struggle with is 'how do we persuade him to transition before he hurts someone.'"

Nobody on his medical executive committee wanted to tackle the issue because they had no file of complaints to point to, yet they all sensed they were dealing with a ticking time bomb, when the informal monitoring systems they developed did not work.


I suppressed the thought about trading in one 80-year-old for two 40-year-olds.

It reminded me of Curtis Marsh, former star lineman for the Oakland Raiders. "When I came to my first NFL camp, it was like I was a tall, cold can of beer. They popped the top and all that energy and desire and ability came out," he said in the May 7, 2011, issue of Sports Illustrated. "When I was empty, when I had no more to give, they just crumpled me up and threw me on the garbage heap. Then, they grabbed a new can and popped him open, and he flowed out till he was empty."

The CEO and I brainstormed together when I asked him, "How does this physician want to be remembered?" Legacy becomes increasingly important when the marginal value of seeing one more patient diminishes.

Then his eyes brightened when I asked, "Does he have a special healthcare cause that he wants to support? Maybe, he could solicit contributions from grateful patients and their families."

Age notwithstanding, consider Brian Wong's survey of more than 1,500 practicing physicians (A Prescription for Physician Reengagement. Futurescan 2009:23-26) that revealed the majority of physicians seek meaningful work that makes a difference in patients' lives, a sense of community, and regular and reliable feedback that affirms their value.

This challenge of guiding aging physicians will come up with increasing frequency over the next decade:

  • What do you think?
  • What have you tried that has worked in your organization?
  • What humbling lessons can you share, so that others do not reinvent the learning wheel?

I welcome your input.

Ken is a practicing general surgeon/MBA and CEO of, who works with organizations that need to engage physicians to improve clinical and financial performance in this era of healthcare reform. His latest book, Getting it Done, celebrates healthcare heroes who broke down silos and improved care for their communities. Please learn more about what he does by visiting


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