Medical students in the U.S. today are the future face of the American health care system. As they study to become doctors, nurses and medical assistants, those interested in a career in health care should be aware of how the aging population in the U.S. will change the medical industry, and how to provide the best care for their elderly patients. The medical practice of caring for seniors is knows as geriatrics, and while there are tenets of this practice that are unique to the field, the basic elements can be used by any practitioner to ensure they are giving their patient the best care possible.
Medical assistants and doctors caring for elderly patients often work on interdisciplinary teams of other providers. Physicians, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists and family members all collaborate to provide comprehensive care for these patients with multiple needs.1
More baby boomers will need medical care in the future
Medical students today are being prepared to treat a wide variety of illnesses amongst a more diverse population than ever before. Older patients are a major portion of those who will be seeking medical care in the future. According to the American Medical Student Association, the population of individuals over the age of 65 will increase by 73 percent between 2010 and 2030, meaning one in five Americans will be a senior citizen.1 Medical students in all fields should be well-versed in the various chronic conditions that can befall seniors today. However, the need for medical assistants and doctors to focus their care solely on seniors is growing. According to a study conducted by the Alliance for Aging Research, 33,000 geriatricians will be needed by 2030, and currently there are only 8,800 practitioners that are certified.1
Individuals born between the years 1946 and 1964 are categorized as baby boomers, according to The U.S. Census Bureau. Approximately 75 million Americans make up the baby boom generation, and every year for the next 20 years roughly 3 million baby boomers will reach retirement age.2 These facts will drastically change society, public policy and health care as Americans’ needs evolve and boomers leave the workforce in growing numbers. The boomer generation’s sheer size is likely to capture the attention of providers and hospitals. Hospitals have to focus on both how to care for the aging population and how an aging health care workforce will affect services rendered.
Boomers will need specialized care
The overall health of the boomer generation was compared with that of their parents in a research study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Regardless of their longer life expectancy, baby boomers were more likely to have higher rates of hypertension, higher cholesterol, obesity and diabetes.2 These results indicate that seniors will push the cost of health care higher and increase the need for health care professionals as the boomers age. The researchers declared that there is “a clear need for policies that expand efforts at prevention and healthy lifestyle promotion in the baby boomer generation.”2 Medical students will need to learn how to discuss preventative measures with elderly patients.
Many older Americans suffer from multiple chronic illnesses, putting a strain on providers and the Medicare program. As the president of the Alliance for Aging Research, Daniel Perry, explained in an interview, “The reality is most elderly people do not have one disease on their death certificates.” Elderly patients often receive care from more than one specialist as well as a primary care provider, but the current health care system in the U.S. does not support coordination and collaboration between providers in different fields. According to Perry, “We don’t have a health care system that is well-designed to diagnose, assess, prevent, postpone and treat the multiple chronic conditions that accompany the aging process.”2
Hospitals will be the ones bearing most of the financial burden as boomers age and incur multiple chronic conditions. Individuals with chronic illnesses are more likely to end up in the hospital from getting the flu, falling or catching a cold. It’s more expensive for hospitals to treat patients with chronic conditions because those individuals are more vulnerable to other illnesses. Without drastic changes to the health care system, issues of cost are predicted to worsen.2 The Census Bureau’s estimate of how many boomers will enter retirement age predicts double-digit percentage increases through 2021, meaning the number of Americans who are eligible for Medicare will increase to 20 percent of the U.S. population by 2029, up from 13 percent in 2011. The problem comes from the fact that the number of people paying into Medicare (people between the ages of 18 to 65) will drop from 63 percent to just 57 percent by 2029.2 These facts serve to further reinforce the need for more medical students to focus their studies on the care of aging and elderly patients.
1 “Geriatrics Interest Group,” AMSA.org, http://www.amsa.org/AMSA/Homepage/About/Committees/Geriatrics.aspx
2 Barr, Paul, “The Boomer Challenge,” H&HN.com, Jan. 14, 2014, http://www.hhnmag.com/display/HHN-newsarticle.dhtmldcrPath=/templatedata/HF_Common/NewsArticle/data/HHN/Magazine/2014/Jan/cover-story-baby-boomers