By 2029, the 65-year-and-older demographic will make up roughly 20 percent of Americans, census data tells us. Yet while elderly population expands and figuratively speeds forth in a Corvette, the contingent of health care providers for seniors lags behind, crawling along at a turtle's pace.
Most remarkable is the increase in the centenarian population alone those Americans aged 100 or older. The number of centenarians has nearly doubled since 2000. And when we take into account the gradually retiring Baby Boomer generation, it's no surprise we will witness an ever-increasing elderly population.
This greater life expectancy over the years can be explained by many medical advances -- with better vaccines, treatments and technology. Yet while these advances contribute to longer life, quality of life depends to a large degree on the health care provided by their doctors.
And the fact is that the geriatrician specially trained to meet the unique needs of older people is a vital but scarce commodity in the American medical field today.
While there are around 7,000 geriatricians in practice in the United States, the American Geriatrics Society estimates that medical schools must train no less than 6,250 additional geriatricians by 2030 in order to meet the health care demands of the increasing elderly population. That s approximately 450 more geriatricians joining the field per year than the amount practicing today.
While the death rates of centenarians in all demographics (white, black, Hispanic, female, male) have declined between 2008 and 2014, the overall health risks facing the elderly have increased, according to census data.
According to the CDC, heart disease remains the leading cause of death for the elderly despite a slightly reduced death rate. Also, death rates for the elderly as a result of hypertension and Alzheimer's have both increased since 2000.
As both the elderly population grows and its health needs increase, clearly there's a need for more geriatric health practitioners. Yet filled first-year positions in geriatrics rank second-to-last among medical specialities. Why is this?
For one thing, geriatrics is one of the lowest-paying specialties in medicine. According to the Medical Group Management Association, the median yearly salary of a private practice geriatrician in 2014 was $220,000, less than half a cardiologist's income.
In addition, geriatrics requires between one-to-two more years' training than does general internal medicine (which treats all adults, not just the elderly). Yet the general internist makes almost $20,000 more than the geriatrician.
Another factor that keeps doctors from choosing this specialty, to but it bluntly, is that many physicians find it unappealing. Besides the medical requirements, the geriatrician must also embrace the psychological and social needs unique to the elderly. By comparison to the workload of general internists, many see these added responsibilities as permanent and frustrating to handle on a day-by-day basis.
Now, given the predictions and the growing need for geriatric doctors, many feel financial incentives will emerge, attract new takers. And in the meantime, medical students will hopefully weigh the growing needs of the elderly when making career decisions.
Will the financial burdens of student debt win out over the moral responsibility to care for an ever-expanding elderly population? Let's hope not.