Senior Care Crisis Looms as New Doctors Avoid Geriatrics

The lack of geriatricians and other health care professionals specializing in senior care is no secret, but dramatic under-enrollment in training programs nationwide should be ringing alarm bells, according to a recent NPR report.

For the past three years, no new students have enrolled in any of the four geriatric fellowship programs offered in West Virginia—and the state already is facing an acute shortage of physicians with this designation. Even though the state has the third-oldest population in the country, there are only 36 geriatricians practicing there, reported Kara Lofton in a segment that aired on All Things Considered.

Senior living communities are among the settings where these physicians see patients. For instance, Dr. Todd Goldberg, one of West Virginia’s few geriatricians, sees residents at Edgewood Summit, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in the state’s capital, Charleston.

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“He’s sure got a lot to do, and does it so well,” 93-year-old Edgewood Manor resident Mary Mullens said, speaking of Goldberg.

Mullens is lucky that she is receiving care from a geriatrician where she lives; other West Virginia residents are driving great distances for needed care, according to the report.

And the issue is not confined to West Virginia, said Goldberg.

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“The current workforce is inadequately trained and inadequately prepared to deal with what’s been called the silver tsunami—a tidal wave of elderly people—increasing in the population in West Virginia, across America, and across the world really,” he said.

Of 383 positions available in geriatric fellowship programs nationwide, only 192 were filled this year. The reasons are various, but lack of interest is not necessarily the problem. In fact, nearly every year, students express interest in geriatrics, said Dr. Shirley Neitch, head of geriatrics at Marshall University Medical School in Huntingdon, West Virginia. But with the average medical student graduating with $183,000 in debt, they are seeking practice areas where they can immediately begin practicing, without the the need for a fellowship year.

With the pipeline of geriatricians drying up, the problem likely will only get worse as the senior population in the United States soars, creating a crisis of care.

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“This is a national problem,” said Goldberg.

Written by Tim Mullaney

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