Long gone are the days of doctors who knew you by first name and entered the room with a clipboard and pen. These days, healthcare visits often feel rushed, impersonal, and perhaps just easier to Google—and, unfortunately, it’s destined to feel even more cursory as we enter a healthcare worker shortage.
As of 2013, more than half of the US’s registered nurses were over 50 years old, and about 1/3 of RNs over 54 years old plan to retire by 2018. Similarly, more than 1/3 of our licensed practitioner nurses are over 50 years old. Add to the mix an aging population—by 2050 the 65+ population is expected to more than double—and we have a massive population of seniors who require care for chronic illnesses and healthcare workers who will be retiring themselves.
Meet geriatrics—the branch of medicine focused on caring for the elderly. Geriatricians are physicians who specialize in the treatment of adults age 65 and older, and their field has the bleakest future of all. Geriatrics has always been a difficult field to fill, and it has not improved as Boomer retirement approaches. According to the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), the US needed 20,000 geriatricians in 2016 to take care of older Americans. As of 2014, there were only 7,423 geriatricians. The AGS predicted that, by 2030, we will need 30,000 geriatricians. That means our medical schools need to certify about 1,500 new geriatricians every year in order to make up for these shortcomings, which is an unrealistic goal considering the -13% growth in certified geriatricians between 2000 and 2010.
As of right now, it doesn’t seem that we can support aging Boomers. So what exactly do we do?
We sit for a moment, ponder the meaning of life, maybe shed a tear or two. Then we pull up our big-girl pants and get to work on damage control.
First thing’s first: know that the healthcare industry isn’t all doom and gloom. Hospitals have been trying to make it easier for older nurses to continue working by reducing the physical demands of their job and allowing flexible scheduling. This is a smart move for an employer with workers in their 60s, but retirement is still inevitable, and we need to prepare by encouraging younger generations to join the ranks.
One field with continuously swelling numbers is physician’s assistants (PAs). In 2014, over half of our PAs were under 40 years old. Thank goodness these workers (probably) aren’t retiring any time soon. That same year, Forbes ranked a master’s in PA studies as the #1 degree for jobs, which is great marketing for our in-need healthcare teams. This growth can partly be explained by Millennial and Xer women, who find PA work an ideal medical career that offers more work-life balance than being a physician. Medical school is, to be frank, a time and money suck (though incredibly fulfilling in the meaning and knowledge departments), and it doesn’t allow much room for raising a family or having a personal life. PA graduate programs, on the other hand, are only about 2–3 years of additional schooling. Xers are able to achieve the work-life balance they desire, and Millennials can blend their work and personal lives as they do.
When it comes to other fields facing a serious shortage of bodies and brains like geriatrics, where exactly do we begin? This is a toughy that will take systemic change to even begin to resolve, but incentivizing Millennials and Gen Edgers to get involved in the right fields is a good place to start. Millennials need to be reminded of the meaningful work opportunities that lie in geriatrics, and we need to show Edgers that healthcare careers can be meaningful as well as financially stable. Otherwise, the closest Millennials get to medicine is playing Operation, and the closest Gen Edgers get to understanding age is through Bernie Sanders, the Democrat many Edgers wished was their kooky grandfather. High schools seldom offer classes that allow students a true peek into the world of healthcare, and medical schools offer little exposure to geriatrics. Creating curriculum around the industry, offering work experience, and stressing the growing need for geriatricians are tangible places to start. Realistic Edgers will take these options into consideration if they are stressed as logical and valuable career paths.
Medical schools can do their part as well by introducing geriatrics education in all fields of medical training. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) calls this “gerontologizing” medicine and recommends its institutionalization. Similar to how all medical students receive consistent pediatrics training and know how to deliver a baby (even if they’ll never actually ever do it again), physicians across disciplines should be familiar with geriatric principles since they’ll work with elderly patients on almost a daily basis. (Okay, maybe the pediatricians can pass up on that requirement.)
While Boomers are seeking their Cocoon moments as they age, the truth is that there is no fountain of youth, so we need to help them prepare to age with dignity. It’s a challenge that will require big, systemic changes, but understanding what makes the different generations excited about work can help motivate students of all ages to get involved with medicine and provide the elderly with the care they need and deserve.