Dr. Ken’s Corner: Does Healthcare For The Elderly Need A Makeover?

The pandemic has disproportionately harmed older people, especially those with underlying health conditions. This has led many Americans to believe that only the elderly run the risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID.

A study published in The Lancet found that nearly one-fourth of the Twitter posts early in the pandemic downplayed the potential severity of the virus for younger adults and children.

“With the pandemic, there has been a parallel outbreak of ageism,” social scientists said in a recent Wall Street Journal article. They reported a widespread belief that people over 70 are “uniformly helpless” and that chronological age should be used to determine who should receive medical care.

Another study showed that where people live matters. Implicit age bias—a subconscious negative attitude toward older people—was found to be more prevalent in states that have a higher percentage of adults who are in generally poor health.

Age bias is rooted in the belief that an inevitable part of the aging process is the steady deterioration of one’s health. Unfortunately, doctors who provide care for the elderly have done little to discourage this attitude, according to Dr. Louise Aronson, a professor of Geriatrics at UCSF. “We wait for people to get sick…and then we come in with our fancy technology and drugs to rescue them,” she said in a recent Forbes article.

“We are literally waiting for older adults to get very sick before we provide them with precisely the kind of healthcare that could have kept them from getting sick in the first place.” The challenge doctors face is in determining how to prevent illness instead of waiting until it requires aggressive treatment.

Demographic changes underway intensify this challenge. America’s population is growing older every day and, the demand for quality eldercare has never been greater. The CDC estimates that seniors account for 37.4% of diagnostic tests, 34% of inpatient procedures, and one-third of all office visits.

Because of a shortage of Geriatric specialists, most of the care for older people is provided by internists, family physicians, ER doctors, and surgeons. According to the American Geriatrics Society, there are currently about 7,000 geriatricians in the U.S.

As the population ages, an estimated 30,000 geriatricians will be needed by 2030. With a shortfall almost certain, the burden will shift to educating primary care physicians to provide care that promotes healthy aging.