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Elderly drivers will listen to doctor's warnings: study

VANCOUVER (NEWS1130) – It can be a tough conversation to have with an aging parent or other relative: When is it time to hang up the car keys for good?

While the driver may not listen to you, new Canadian research suggests they will often listen to a doctor.

“It was a surprise to me; warnings about driving were much more effective than warnings about smoking, exercise and diet,” says Dr. Don Redelmeier, lead author and senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences at SunnyBrook Hospital in Toronto.

The study suggests doctor’s warnings to people who might be medically unfit to drive led to an immediate 45 to 50 per cent decrease in serious trauma from road crashes.  Unfortunately, even when the warning comes from a doctor, aging drivers sometimes don’t want to hear it.

“There are some downsides. Specifically, we observed that the warnings were associated with about a 25 per cent increase in depression episodes for patients, as well as a reduction in return visits to the responsible physician,” he tells News1130. “About one-in-10 patients never went back to the doctor who gave them the warning. Instead, they just took their business elsewhere.”

Redelmeier, also a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, points out 95 per cent of drivers are perfectly fine behind the wheel. “It’s the five per cent of drivers who account for about 30 per cent of roadway crashes that are the priority.”

There is mandatory reporting of unfit drivers in BC, Ontario and some other provinces. In Ontario, where the study was done, doctors also get a small cash fee for the service, but less than one half of one per cent of drivers get that warning.

“It should encourage all physicians, medical warnings to patients who are potentially unfit to drive can be life-saving as well as cost saving to society. It’s a big affirmation of the practice, even though most people are reluctant to engage in such conversations,” says Redelmeier.

The public health benefits of medical warnings saved Ontario about $7 million each year in avoiding economic losses by preventing crashes between 2006 and 2010.

The study, Medical warnings for unfit drivers and the risk of trauma from road crashes, was published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.