Geriatric Physicians in Short Supply

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shutterstock_267278492The need for more specialized geriatric care is present and will only be increasing in the coming years. However, many medical students are simply not choosing to get this specialized training. Various endeavors are underway to combat this trend.

Many medical school programs are recognizing the need to train all medical students in the area of treating the elderly. “As I tell my medical students, you will be working with older adults no matter what your specialty is. Even pediatricians will be working with grandparents raising grandchildren,” says Dr. Van Winkle.

Both the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine and the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine are helping students incorporate geriatric training into all specialties. Even for medical students who don’t choose to pursue geriatrics specifically, having the basic knowledge necessary to work and communicate with the over 65 population is important.

“As the director of the geriatric training for medical students at OU, it is my goal to make sure that every graduating medical student knows the core geriatric principles,” says Dr. Odenheimer.

At the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, fourth year medical students are required to take a four-week rotation in geriatrics. They learn important skills such as caring for a patient at the end of life, how to handle prescriptions with older patients, how to compassionately deliver bad news and manage pain and working together in teams of care providers, according to Dr. Odenheimer.

“It is very eye opening for the students and we have had a number decide to pursue geriatrics based on the experience,” says Dr. Odenheimer.

[pullquote]Medication-related problems are considered the fifth leading cause of death amongst older people,”[/pullquote] At Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, a Geriatric Focus Course was added in 2013 for first-year medical students. They also began the Senior Mentor Program directed by Dr. Van Winkle. This program matches first-year medical students with healthy older adult volunteers from the community. The students and the volunteers meet twice per semester to practice skills such as collecting life and medical histories, helping patients cope with stress and gather social support, and discuss topics such as nutrition, advance directives and end-of-life issues.

“We hope this program will help prepare our students to work with older adults no matter what specialty they choose,” says Dr. Van Winkle.

Helping patients understand and remain vigilant with multiple medications is a significant aspect of specialized geriatric care. It is important that all of a patient’s care providers know what medications have been prescribed to avoid complications and negative interactions. If patients don’t have a geriatrician organizing their medications, there is the potential for life-threatening complications.

“Medication-related problems are considered the fifth leading cause of death amongst older people,” says Dr. Mark Stratton, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oklahoma College of Pharmacy.

Dr. Stratton, through the Oklahoma Healthy Aging Initiative and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, is equipping seniors to take an active role in managing medication needs through the live education program titled Using Medication Safely – A Key Ingredient to Your Health. The program has been presented to more than 8,000 seniors.

Training more geriatric specialists is the only way to truly meet the need. And the good news is that Oklahoma is training new geriatricians. According to Dr. Dentino, by next summer, the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center geriatric medicine fellowship will have graduated five new geriatricians in three years.

The need for specialized geriatric care is great across both the state and the nation. According to the American Geriatrics Society, with the future supply of geriatricians in jeopardy, our aging population may not receive the care they need. But this need is being addressed in Oklahoma by incorporating geriatric care education into the training for all medical students, educating the elderly to advocate for themselves when possible, and working hard to communicate the value and benefits of helping to extend and improve the lives of the elderly through the practice of geriatrics.

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