People write passionately about discrimination in Medicine: sexism, racism and even fattism (yes, there is such a word, I checked). Today, I want to talk about Ageism.
Ageism = Prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age. (Oxford Dictionary)
Like all forms of discrimination, it goes both ways. There is ageism from the doctors to the patient, and then there is ageism from the patient to the doctors. The latter is the cause of my ongoing angst.
When am I going to see the real doctor?
This is actually something I get on a regular basis, usually after spending 45 minutes with them, taking a history, examining, diagnosing and explaining their treatment options. I suppose I should really consider it as a compliment. I do know I look young for my age. I know I don’t look like I am about to turn 40 (*sigh*). This can be attributed to both my ethnic background, but also to the fact that I don’t smoker nor spend much time in the sun (I do, however, sport a very unattractive sallow chronic ‘fluorescent tan’.) Yes, I do look after myself, but despite being a plastic surgeon, I have yet found a colleague trusty-worthy enough to stick needles or scalpels in me, and I am definitely too chicken to do it to myself in front of the mirror (unlike some of my colleagues – *winkwink nudgenudge*). So, no, my youthful appearance is not chemically or surgically enhanced, all I can blame it on is my genes.
So, why, you ask, am I complaining about looking young? Well, here’s a list of reasons why my age-inappropriate appearance doesn’t exactly make my job easier.
I don’t mind having someone young for the cough and colds, but can I please have someone older for the serious stuff?
I am not having someone fresh out of medical school operating on me.
You are too young to understand my problems
I need someone who are older and know what they are doing.
You look younger than my granddaughter, how old are you?
I am not being judgemental, but you are too young, I want someone who’s competent.
I have a very complex problem, I need someone with a little bit more experience.
The standards for the young graduates nowadays are not like the good old days, I want an older doctor who has been through the real training.
I want a doctor who is at least my age.
Now, what in the world makes you think you have the right to ask for my age? You are saying it isn’t being judgemental. But it is. You are judging my capabilities as a doctor by my age.
These patients feel that because of my age, I lack experience and should only treat the ‘easy’ stuff. There are two incorrect assumptions here. Firstly, the inferred ‘lack of experience’ by my age. Most people don’t realise that to become surgeon, one has to finish medical school, gain basic medical experience working as a junior doctor before being selected via a rigorous process to become a trainee in surgery. The surgical training program can range from 3 to 7 years, depending on the actual specialty, any sub-specialisation training within that specialty, and any additional overseas training to gain a wider perspective. At the end of which, one has to go through a series of very stringent assessments before a specialist qualification can be granted. I was at least 10 years out of medical school before I became a fully-qualified specialist surgeon. All I can say is, if 10 years of working and training (and not forgetting the 6 years of medical school before that) doesn’t constitute ‘enough experience’, and my qualification ain’t worth shit to you, then go ahead and set your own definition of ‘experience’.
Secondly, the patient’s assumption what ailments are ‘easy’ to treat and what aren’t, may not exactly correlate to true clinical relevance. A cough and cold may be easy to treat, but it may also be a manifestation of something more sinister. I would never presume a cough and cold as exactly that – I am a plastic surgeon after all – I always refer the patient back to their Family Doctor, as that is something those doctors would have more knowledge of. Patients who infer that they know what is ‘easy’ and what is not, show not only a total lack of awareness for the complexity of medicine, but also their disrespect for their doctor’s judgement. What may appear to be ‘easy’ may just be a harbinger for an underlying problem which is very difficult to treat, or it may just be the tip of the iceberg where surgical complexity is concerned. One of the most critical aspect during our training is to be able to recognise when we are out of our depth. If your doctor admits to needing a second opinion or assistance of another specialist, you should be grateful that you have found someone who will not take risks with your health.
People think that lack of ‘life-experience’ due to age is a deterrent to being a good doctor who could understand the issues of the ‘older’ population. This myth is easily busted when I look around at my colleagues. Which one of us isn’t jaded by what we have seen during our careers? We have seen it all. Birth, Life, Death, Disability, Misfortune, Pain, Suffering, Drug Use, Crimes, Abuse, Deviants, Perverts, the Insane, Murderers, Liars, Malingerers, Sadness, Grief, Anger, the list goes on. Some of the things we see and the frequency in which we see them, gives us multiple life-times of the so-called ‘life-experiences’. Sure, we may not have experienced any of these ourselves personally, but sometimes watching somebody we care for going through it and feeling utterly helpless can be just as real to us as the person who is experiencing it. Many of us view some of our patient’s misfortune as personal failures, and they take their toll on our own mentality.
Each specialty also has their demographic of patients; to assume that we have no inkling to a patient’s particular age-related issues is really quite ignorant. Most of my patients with skin cancers are elderly; I understand they may have issues getting to and from hospitals, care at home and simple matters such as attending appointments for dressings. We organise nursing home-visits for their dressings, and sometimes, arrange suitable surgery dates so that their family can take time off work to care for them. Most of my breast cancer patients have young children. We fit their appointments around school pick-ups and their surgeries out of school holidays so they can spend as much with their children as possible. Doctors are not unaware of our patient’s personal situations; we are not blind to possible social issues surrounding health problems. We, ourselves, have elderly parents, young nieces and nephews, friends outside of medicine and older/younger siblings. Often when we meet new patients, if they are not of similar age or demographics as ourselves, we can still relate them as one of our own relatives or friends.
So you think we don’t have enough ‘life-experiences’? Well, tell me, have you ever had to listen to a mother’s heart-breaking sobs in the middle of the night while she is sitting next to her dying 3-year-old baby? Have you ever had to spend two hours stitching up a battered wife’s mangled face and then watch her leave with her husband because she refused to report him despite your best efforts in counselling her? Have you ever stood in a room, watching a whole family saying goodbye to a man dying, while you are busily pumping him full of morphine because you know there’s nothing else you could do for him? Have you carefully removed a brain tumour from a patient who only hours before, had a psychotic episode and scratched, punched and spat at you? I could go on, but did you just say you were abused as a child? I have lost count of the number of child-abuse victims I have seen, but I understand everyone’s story is different. A different variation of the same……
Education has changed dramatically over the years, and this has definitely influenced Medical Schools. Standards are different, and they are different for a reason. The emphasis in medical training has changed, from purely scientific rote-learning to a more holistic clinical approach. Yes, I may have bitched and moaned about some of these changes as a teacher, but I can see why these changes needed to happen. To be honest, I don’t envy the students and trainees nowadays, an explosion in medical knowledge and technology over the last two decades has added a phenomenal amount into their core curriculum. Some of which I have yet to catch up with because it bears no relevance to my current sub-specialty. When I attended medical school, notes were written on paper, lab results were given over dial phones (yep, I am that ancient), X-rays were on films and put up on light-boxes, blood pressures were taken manually, pulses were counted with a pocket watch, surgical drills and saws were hand driven (not powered by electricity or gas). Back then, the list of diseases I needed to exclude for any presentation could be written on half a page, the number of tests I needed to do could be counted one hand and the number of ways I could treat it could barely fill a chapter in a textbook. Things are so different now, possibilities in Medicine are endless. Medical education nowadays place importance on basic core knowledge so that a graduate is not expected to know everything, but rather, to be able to pick out and apply relevant components of their knowledge to clinical situations. Most importantly, they need to know how to approach the problems and where to source the information they require. The point of today’s schooling is to generate a doctor that thinks, rather than one that relies on a checklist. So give your young doctor a chance, you might be surprised, he/she may think of another approach to your chronic problem. Something that is different to the same old thing which hasn’t been working for you.
We all know that we are getting old when we think everyone else is looking younger, especially when we see our pilots boarding the same plane we are travelling on. Commercial pilots start their careers in their late 20’s and to a lot of us think they are just kids, really. They are responsible for hundreds of lives for hours, but their age does not reflect their capabilities in getting all of us to the correct destination, safely. Why? Because of their qualifications. No airline would put a pilot at the helm of a plane unless he/she has passed all the requirements and assessments, whether they are young or old. In fact, once the pilots have reached a certain age, they have to be re-assessed for their ‘fitness’ to fly.
Some patients actually admitted to coming to me because their previous surgeon was getting old and I looked young (if only they knew!). Some do so in the hope that I have more up-to-date knowledge on new techniques, new technology or new approaches to their chronic problem. Some change surgeons because they have become concerned as their previous surgeons are deemed to be ‘too old’ to still be operating (ageism in the opposite spectrum), whilst some disliked the more paternalistic approach and ‘old-school’ attitude of their previous older surgeons.
Some older surgeons nearing their retirement have insight into their decreasing capabilities. Their eyes aren’t as sharp anymore, their hands have started to tremor, or they are now on several heart medications and struggle to cope with long cases. They cut down on the number of cases they take on as well as limit the type of operations they do. Many become surgical assistants to their younger counterparts. When I first started, I had one of the retiring Professors of Surgery as my regular assistant. It took a long time for me to adjust to giving him orders and correcting him when he is not doing something right. The nursing staff used to giggle when I would say, ‘Would you mind sewing that drain in for me, Sir?’ But it was a very happy arrangement. Prof could still get his hands dirty without the stresses and responsibilities of a surgeon, at the same time, I had instant access to any advice I needed. Not to mention the stories he used to tell as we were operating, those were gems to learn from. He would always tell me that he was not there to judge my competence, but to be my assistant for procedures I was more than capable of doing on my own.
So next time you meet a young doctor, don’t ask them how old they are, ask them what their qualifications are. And if they are just learning, give them the benefit of the doubt, because you could contribute so much to their education and experience by sharing yours with them. You never know, when your doctor retires, and when you are much older, they will be the ones in their prime, in charge of your health.
* Disclaimer: Please do not take this blog as a disrespectful post to generations of surgeons before myself; I fully acknowledge the fact that their expertise could not be surpassed by myself. I am deeply appreciative of their willingness to share with me all that they know, as well as their unfailing support to me as a fellow surgeon, despite my age.