If you need surgery, who do you think would do a better job—a gray-haired surgeon with years of experience or a younger hotshot who might have greater dexterity and perhaps be more up to date on the latest surgical techniques?

That’s the question that researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine and other institutions set out to answer in a study that was recently published in BMJ. In doing so, they hoped to provide insights about the ways in which a surgeon’s age, gender and other characteristics affect the success of the surgery and the patient’s recovery.

Study details: In this study, the researchers reviewed medical records for 892,187 Medicare patients (ages 65 to 99) who had one of 20 types of emergency surgery performed by 45,826 surgeons.

Surprising finding 1: When looking at the rates of death for the patients, the surgeons age 50 and older had the best record. These findings provide evidence, the researchers suggested, of a long learning curve in surgical practice that has a potentially meaningful effect on patients’ outcomes.

Here’s how the numbers looked in an actual breakdown (by the surgeon’s age grouping) of patient mortality rates during the study period (2011 to 2014)…

  • 6% of patients died when the surgeon was age 40 and younger
  • 5% for surgeons ages 40 to 49
  • 4% for those ages 50 to 59 years
  • 3% for surgeons age 60 or older.

Even though the percentage differences may appear small, the researchers say they are clinically significant. Specifically, your risk for death as a patient, assuming all other factors are equal, can be lowered by 5% if the procedures were performed by an “old” surgeon versus a younger one.

Surprising finding 2: When comparing the surgeon’s gender across all the age groups studied, female surgeons in their 50s had the lowest patient mortality rate. Overall, however, the mortality rates for the patients did not differ significantly based on gender.

Bottom line: While the researchers acknowledge that the study was limited to Medicare patients and those receiving emergency surgeries (rather than elective operations), the findings do suggest a need for further investigation. For example, the researchers theorize that tighter restrictions on training hours during residences of younger surgeons may be playing a role in the poorer patient outcomes found in this study. It’s also possible that surgeons who are early in their careers need more monitoring. Additional research will provide more answers.

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