- Barry D. Weiss, MD
The Association of American Medical Colleges reports that there are only 39 family medicine geriatrics fellowships in the U.S. The combined total of family medicine and internal medicine allopathic and osteopathic physicians graduating from U.S. residency programs who entered geriatrics fellowships in 2019 was only 84, with more than 80% of fellowship positions remaining unfilled.
At the same time, there were 180 primary care sports medicine fellowships, the majority of which (140) are offered by family medicine programs. More than 90% of these programs filled in the 2019 Match, with 188 allopathic and osteopathic U.S. residency graduates entering these fellowships.
What’s wrong with this picture?
In the 2010 U.S. Census, 13% of the population (one of every eight people) was 65 years of age or older. This year, the number is closer to 17% (one of every six). By 2050, just 30 years from now – well within the working careers of current family medicine residents – close to a quarter of the population will be 65 or older. Moreover, these older adults are big users of the medical system. The number of physician office visits/100 persons by older adults is more than double the rate in any other age group.
Based on these statistics, it’s not likely that our current residency graduates will be devoting their careers to being team doctors or focusing on sports medicine. Rather, it is inevitable that they, and indeed all practicing generalist physicians, will spend a substantial portion of their practice time caring for older adults.
Why, then, is there so little interest in geriatrics in family medicine training programs? Pretty much all our current trainees are going to do in their future practices is take care of aging baby boomers. Why isn’t geriatrics front and center in our training programs?
Furthermore, it’s not only students and residents who lack interest in geriatrics. One of my professional roles is serving as medical editor of AAFP’s FP Essentials monographs. When we issued a call for authors for an upcoming monograph on a musculoskeletal/sports medicine topic, we received proposals from 18 teams of family medicine authors interested in writing the monograph. In contrast, a call for authors for a geriatrics monograph brought in only a handful of proposals.
Key reasons for a lack of interest in geriatrics have been identified – among them are a preference for treating less complex patients who have curable conditions, and the relatively low compensation for geriatric care. But, we also know that providing exposure to and education about care of older adults can increase physicians’ interest in geriatrics. Geriatrics rotations should expose trainees to a broad range of older adult populations, from institutionalized adults to vigorous, physically active seniors.
Working with students, residents, colleagues, and our communities, we all have a responsibility to increase awareness of the special issues involved in providing high-quality care for older adults, and to highlight the rewards and satisfaction gained from providing that care. Family physicians can be the leaders in geriatric care. All we need to do is: do it.
Dr. Weiss is an AFP Associate Medical Editor and Editor of FP Essentials.