These should be the best of times for geriatric medicine.
The baby boom has become a senior surge, bringing in a rapidly growing pool of aging patients for geriatricians to treat. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 56 million adults aged 65 and older live in the United States. They account for about 17% of the nation’s population. That number is expected to hit 73 million by 2030 and 86 million by 2050.
The American Geriatrics Society estimates that 30% of older people require the attention of geriatricians. These clinicians excel in managing complex cases – patients with multiple comorbidities, such as coronary artery disease, dementia, and osteoporosis, who are taking a half dozen, and often more, medications.
. In the 2010s, geriatricians called for “25,000 [such specialists] by 2025.” As of 2021, 7123 certified geriatricians were practicing in the United States, according to the American Board of Medical Specialties.
The Health Resources and Services Administration, a federal agency that addresses medical workforce shortages, estimates that there will be 6,230 geriatricians by 2025, or approximately 1 for every 3,000 older adults requiring geriatric care. HRSA projects a shortage of 27,000 geriatricians by 2025.
The specialty has faced an uphill battle to attract fellows. This year, only 43% of the nation’s 177 geriatrics fellowship slots were filled, according to November’s National Resident Match Program report. Family medicine–based geriatrics achieved only a 32% fill rate, while internal medicine–based programs saw a rate of 45%.
“Our numbers are shrinking so we need another approach to make sure older adults get the care they need and deserve,” said G. Michael Harper, MD, president of the 6,000-member AGS.
But Dr. Harper, who practices at the University of California, San Francisco, and the San Francisco VA Medical Center, added a positive note: “We may be struggling to increase the number of board-certified geriatricians, but the field itself has made a lot of progress in terms of improving clinical care through advancements in science and in the ways we deliver care.”
Dr. Harper cited the Hospital Elder Life Program, a hospital model developed at the Harvard-affiliated Marcus Institute for Aging Research, which uses an interprofessional team and trained volunteers to prevent delirium and functional decline. HELP has been adopted by more than 200 hospitals worldwide and has been successful at returning older adults to their homes or previous living situations with maintained or improved ability to function, he said.
Mark Supiano, MD, professor and chief of geriatrics at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, said the specialty has been in shortage mode since ABMS recognized it in 1988. He was in the initial cohort of fellowship-trained geriatricians, sitting for the first certifying exam in geriatrics offered that year.
“Back then, the demographic imperative of the aging of our society was on the horizon. We’re living it now. I knew enough to recognize it was coming and saw an opportunity,” Dr. Supiano said in an interview. “There was so much then that we didn’t know about how to understand aging or how to care for older adults that there really was such a knowledge gap.”
Dr. Supiano is an associate editor of Hazzard’s Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology (McGraw-Hill Education), which has more than doubled in pages and word count during his career.