Surgeons 'reach peak performance between 35 and 50' (… but how do you check once you're on the operating table)
Patients can expect safer care if their surgeon is aged 35 to 50, research suggests.
Previous studies have found experts tend to reach their 'peak performance' after about 10 years in their specialty.
Older doctors who have been in practice for a long time might have less factual knowledge and be less likely to adhere to evidence-based medicine which risks the safety of care, studies have also shown.
Safe hands: Previous studies have shown that surgeons are at their peak after about 10 years in their specialty
The latest research, published online in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), backs up this view, finding that surgeons aged 35 to 50 offer safer surgery than their younger or older counterparts.
A team led by experts at the University of Lyon in France examined links between surgeons' experience and the risk of patients suffering complications following thyroid surgery.
Overall, 28 surgeons completed 3,574 thyroid procedures during a one-year period.
The results found that surgeons with 20 years or more of practice had a three times higher risk of a patient suffering recurrent laryngeal nerve palsy (leading to severe hoarseness) and more than seven times the risk of hypoparathyroidism (damage to glands).
The researchers also found younger colleagues performed less well.
They added: 'Factors contributing to poor performance in very experienced surgeons should be explored further.'
The authors say further research is needed because other unknown or unmeasured factors may explain some of the variation in complication rates.
However, they say their findings suggest that surgeons' performance varies over the course of their career and that a surgeon cannot achieve or maintain top performance passively by 'accumulating experience'.
Professor Mike Larvin, consultant general surgeon and director of education at the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) in the UK, said: 'Given the pace of change in medical innovation it is certain that a surgeon at the end of his career will be undertaking a nearly completely different range of operations than at the outset.
'This interesting study shows the importance of lifelong learning for surgeons – something the RCS supports by directly running courses for trainees and consultants and quality assuring courses run by others.
'We have also set out requirements for continuing professional development for medical revalidation, a system of regular five-year check-ups on doctor competence, which starts at the end of this year.'