Ageism and Age Discrimination – Against Doctors!

Ageism is stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age.  Three elements make up ageism: prejudice against older people; discrimination against older people; and practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about older people.  Age discrimination is one of the more common forms of discrimination reported to civil rights authorities – now surpassing discrimination on the base of gender, race, or sexual orientation.

I started thinking about this after hearing the Commonwealth government proposal to gradually increase the retirement age to 70.  At one level this proposal holds older persons in positive regard in that competency to work is considered to continue to at least age 70!  For many older workers in sedentary and professional roles this is within their capacity especially as the longevity of the Australian population increases.  However this proposal may not be so welcome to individuals who have worked in heavy manual positions all their lives – retirement much earlier might be attractive!

One of the reasons put forward for a later age of retirement is to provide a longer working career for individuals to accumulate superannuation, and, the theory goes, to be less reliant on the government old age pension.  But this can only happen if older persons can retain employment during fifties and sixties and contribute to superannuation.  Currently this is problematic – individuals in Australia at this stage in their lives find it difficult to find and continue in employment in salaried positions.  Why?  Age discrimination.

Despite the experience, the positive attitude and work discipline, and the low absenteeism of older workers, employers both public and private overlook employing older workers.  Employers do not want to take on individuals who due to their age have the experience to distinguish between productive versus self-serving management reorganizations – usually proposed by middle and upper management as enhancing efficiency when the real reason for the reorganization is to entrench new managers in their positions by bringing in loyal deputies.  Employers do not want to take on older workers as salaried staff because they cannot be easily coerced into work practices that disadvantage them because the older workers are not susceptible to being ‘bribed’ by promises of future promotion – the older worker has a shorter time frame to consider!

The only form of employment available to the lucky few older individuals is contract work.  Fortunately the medial profession is privileged in this regard, especially for those in private practice, as many are employed on ‘contracts’ – not by employers, but by patients – one patient at a time.  But older doctors not in this position are subject to the same employment age discrimination faced by the wider community.

In the medical profession ageism presents itself in the use of stereotyping to characterize older doctors as inefficient, slow, bumbling, cognitively impaired, and potentially ‘dangerous’.  This is despite any convincing evidence that healthy older doctors have any of these problems, or are any different to healthy younger doctors.  This attitude leads to age discrimination – pure and simple.

A much more positive approach is to argue for the principle that older doctors should not be discriminated against and they should be encouraged to achieve their full potential, at all ages of their careers.  All people, including doctors, should be dealt with on their merits, not based on prejudiced stereotypes.  Medical associations and medical registration boards should regard older doctors on the basis of what they can do rather on what they cannot do.  In the general community it is the law for people to be deemed as being of sound mind or having capacity unless proven otherwise.  In my opinion it seems when it comes to older doctors the attitude of some professional organizations is to assume older doctors lack capacity unless it is proved they have capacity!  This is a complete reverse of the situation applying to the general community and an attitude reflective of ageism.

Older doctors like younger doctors can get sick.  Some illnesses affect the capacity of the doctor to carry out their professional duties.  Medical boards already have wide powers to investigate these situations and limit or remove the right of an unwell doctor to practice.  This authority must be based on the assessment of the merits of the individual case, not on prejudiced stereotypes based on the age of the doctor.

Medical boards should not target older doctors as a group.  There is no credible evidence that healthy older doctors pose a higher risk to the community than younger doctors.

The Australian Senior Active Doctors Association (ASADA) is a group that represents and advocates for older doctors.  ASADA asks for nothing more than the elimination of ageism and age discrimination against older doctors by medical associations, professional organizations, medical boards and employers.

ASADA will also campaign for a step-down category of medical registration for all doctors (younger or older) who no longer want to be fully registered but who wish to continue practice in a more limited fashion.  In other words doctors who want to ‘step down’ but not ‘step right out’.  ASADA will propose an appropriate registration fee and professional development regime to accompany this category.  For more information about ASADA and its policies go to

Prof Philip Morris