Association Between Ophthalmologist Age and Unsolicited Patient Complaints

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Understanding the distribution of patient complaints by physician age may provide insight into common patient concerns characteristic of early, middle, and late stages of careers in ophthalmology. Most previous studies of patient dissatisfaction have not addressed the association with physician age or controlled for other characteristics (eg, practice setting, subspecialty) that may contribute to the likelihood of patient complaints, unsafe care, and lawsuits.


To assess the association between ophthalmologist age and the likelihood of generating unsolicited patient complaints (UPCs) among a cohort of ophthalmologists.

Design, Setting, and Participants

Retrospective cohort study with variable duration of follow-up. The study assessed time to first complaint between 2002 and 2015 in 1342 attending ophthalmologists or neuro-ophthalmologists who had graduated from medical school before 2010 and were affiliated with an organization that participates in Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Patient Advocacy Reporting System. Participants were stratified into 5 age bands and were followed up from the time of their employment to receipt of their first complaint. Trained coders categorized UPCs into 34 specific types under 6 major categories.

Main Outcomes and Measures

Time to first recorded complaint. Multivariable Cox proportional hazards model was used to measure the association between time to first complaint and ophthalmologist age after adjustment for predetermined covariates.


The median physician age was 47 years, with 9% who were 71 years or older. The cohort was 74% male, 90% held MD degrees, and 73% practiced in academic medical centers. The mean follow-up period was 9.8 years. Ophthalmologists older than 70 years had the lowest complaint rate (0.71 per 1000 follow-up days vs 1.41, 1.84, 2.02, and 1.88 in descending order of age band). By 2000 days of follow-up (or within 5.5 years), the youngest group had an estimated UPC risk of 0.523. By 4000 days (>10 years), participants in the older than 70 years age band had an estimated risk of UPC of only 0.364. The 2 youngest age bands were associated with a statistically significant shorter time to first complaint. Compared with those aged 71 years or older, the risk of incurring a UPC for those aged 41 to 50 years was 1.73-fold higher (hazard ratio [HR], 1.73; 95% CI, 1.21-2.46; P = .002). Similarly, participants aged 31 to 40 years had a 2.36 times higher risk of incurring a UPC (HR, 2.36; 95% CI, 1.64-3.40; P < .001).

Conclusions and Relevance

This study suggests that older ophthalmologists are less likely to receive UPCs than younger ones. Although limitations in the study design could affect the interpretation of these conclusions, the findings may have practical implications for patient safety, clinical education, and clinical practice management.

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