More Geriatricians Essential to Treat Boomer’s Mental Health Issues
Mental health and addiction issues are straining our health care system in several demographics, but it appears that the geriatric segment of our population may cause increasing strain. According to an article in the Washington Post, a new report finds as many as 1 in 5 seniors has a mental health or substance abuse problem.
Dr. Dan Blazer of Duke University, who chaired the Institute of Medicine panel that investigated the issue, was quoted as saying that “millions of baby boomers may have a hard time finding care and services for mental health problems such as depression — because the nation is woefully lacking in doctors, nurses and other health workers trained for their special needs.”
Dr. Ken Duckworth of the National Alliance on Mental Illness agrees. He says, “This is a wake-up call for many reasons…The coming need for geriatric mental health care is quite profound for us as a nation, and something we need to attend to urgently.”
National shortage of geriatricians
According to The American Geriatrics Society, there is now approximately one geriatrician for every 2,600 people 75 and older nationwide. While not all elders need a geriatrician, many do. The physical illnesses that come with aging often have nuances that are not always understood by the family doctor. When the mental health issues that can accompany aging are factored in, the need for more geriatricians increases. A person with Alzheimer’s disease may have depression or other mental health issues in addition to his or her dementia, and most family physicians aren’t trained to properly diagnose these complicated cases.
One reason for the shortage of geriatricians is that, as specialties go, geriatrics does not pay on the scale of pediatricians and others who concentrate in one field. Dr. Rosanne Leipzig, a geriatrician at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York says, “…We’re an endangered species…Geriatricians rank among the lowest-paid medical specialties, with a median salary of $183,523 last year, according to the Medical Group Management Association, which tracks physician pay. That sounds like a lot, but many other specialties pay two or three times more, while the average doctor graduates with $160,000 in student loan debt.”
When we look at the growing numbers of seniors needing geriatric care for physical and mental disorders along side of the statistics that can discourage all but the most determined medical students from pursuing geriatrics as a specialty, we can see that our seniors will be increasingly hard pressed to find the specialized care they need.
There have been some attempts to attract more doctors to geriatrics. According to the New Old Age Blog, The National Health Service Corps offers what should be a “modest, small-scale solution: a loan forgiveness program to help pay off the staggering debt that many health professionals incur as students…But geriatrics specialists, incredibly, are not included in the federal law governing eligibility for the National Health Service Corps.”
In the end, forgiving college debt or other incentives to attract doctors to the geriatrics field would save money, since geriatricians are trained to know when it’s best to avoid painful, life threatening and costly surgeries for elders who are not likely to benefit from them in the context of the whole patient. A general physician or a surgeon may be more apt to reflexively recommend surgery if that is the default choice for younger patients. Elderly patients have special needs. Geriatricians are trained to attend to those needs and help our elderly population live the quality of life they deserve.
Geriatricians generally try to limit hospitalizations and procedures that can possibly harm their elderly patients.
Just as the special needs of our children are met with pediatricians, let's try and provide specialist support for our elders as well.
Associated Press (2012, July 10) Aging boomers to face hard time finding mental health care; report urges geriatric training. Washington Post. Retrieved fromhttp://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/aging-boomers-to-face-hard-time-finding-mental-health-care-report-urges-geriatric-training/2012/07/10/gJQAcxesaW_story.html?utm_source=July+13%2C+2012&utm_campaign=Constant+Contact&utm_medium=email
Sedensky, M. (2012, January 11) Geriatrician shortage to grow as baby-boomers age. Associated Press. Retrieved from http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/jan/11/wanted-geriatricians/