In the coming years, the physician shortage that we face in the United States is expected to be a growing problem. With an increase in the aging population occurring at the same time, many are concerned about the impact on the quality of care for those with more health needs and how easy it will be to access this care. However, the good news is that by focusing on the importance of preventive health, seniors can take charge and gain control.
America’s Physician Shortage
According to a recent study, even though the number of physicians is expected to increase modestly in coming years, the need for them will outpace the growth. By 2025, the demand for doctors will exceed supply by as much as 90,000 providers. This is true for all types of physicians—including both primary care providers and specialists.
Most significantly for seniors, a shortage of doctors who specialize in caring for older individuals with multiple health problems—known as geriatricians—is a concern. As Nancy Lundbjerg, CEO of the American Geriatrics Society, noted in an interview with U.S. News & World Report, the shortage of these experts “means that people who really need the services of a geriatrician won’t necessarily have access to that kind of expertise. That’s probably true right now across the country.” While there are currently more than 7,500 certified geriatricians in the United States, that number doesn’t come close to the estimated 17,000 who are needed to care for our country’s older population.
Medical Needs of Seniors
By 2030, individuals 65 and older are expected to make up nearly 20 percent of the population in this country. Due to medical advances, seniors are living longer than ever, and many accumulate multiple chronic conditions as they age. Chronic disease and degenerative illness now pose the greatest risk to individuals as they age, and more than 60 percent of older Americans are living with one or more chronic conditions that require medical treatment. As a result, older individuals are typically hospitalized more frequently than younger patients and stay in the hospital longer when they are. In 2012, adults 65 and older had the longest average length of stay of populations studied, with a typical cost of approximately $13,000 each time they were hospitalized. More than 70 percent of these hospital stays were for medical conditions that may have been positively impacted by better preventive health.
Why Preventive Health is Important
Although clinical preventive services (CPS)—which include screenings, immunizations, health behavior counseling and preventive medicines—can vastly improve health, only half of Americans receive them. Since the chronic conditions that seniors typically face—such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis and lung disease—can often be prevented or detected early with these types of measures, it’s important to make the most of them before a problem occurs.
In addition, healthy lifestyle changes—such as smoking cessation, reduced alcohol consumption, regular exercise, a balanced diet that supports a healthy weight and activities that help reduce stress—can help seniors take charge of their own health. By adopting a preventive health mindset in these ways, older adults can help to ensure better quality of life and lift some of the burden from the limited number of physicians that may be available to care for them in the future.