It hasn’t been that long since I sat as a proud Boy Scout leader, eager to hear what the next enterprising young Scout’s proposed Eagle project plan was.
Great articles have been built, fantastic services rendered and impressive additions delivered each year by thousands of Eagle Scout candidates and their work teams. But not always.
You see, part of the process is the Scout latching onto a plan that includes a willing beneficiary. That sounds easier than it is. Numerous times our Boy Scout committee listened to bright-eyed, confident plans to build, say, a new church garden, outdoor walking path or some other beautiful concept that might need continued attention long after the project was completed.
And that gets me to the proud, breathless announcement last Thursday that Sens. Susan Collins (R-PA) and Bob Casey (D-PA) had introduced the Geriatrics Workforce Improvement Act. On the face of it, the value of the act is undeniable. It would provide training to create more geriatric professionals and nurses — and geriatricians, of which there is a pitifully low 7,300 today. The bill sponsors estimate that 1,600 new geriatricians per year for the next 12 years are needed to satisfy a projected need of 30,000 by 2030. Other forecasts are a bit lower, but you get the idea.
The bill actually would reauthorize the Geriatrics Workforce Enhancement Program (GWEP) for five years and reinstate the Geriatrics Academic Career Awards program (GACA), at a total cost of well more than $200 million.
But while the need for the education and training of more geriatricians is undeniable — much more so than the installation of new beds of petunias and geraniums — it is only half the solution to a problem. Heck, in the long run, it’s far less than half the solution.
The bigger problem when it comes to geriatrician supply is pay levels. There’s not a shortage of doctors; there’s a shortage of doctors who want to be geriatricians. It is a profession that is contracting even as the need grows significantly, as a 2016 New York Times article noted.
If a doctor has gone through medical school, with its exorbitant tuition costs and outlandish training regimen, why wouldn’t that same person want the same reward as peers who do NOT decide to work for relatively low pay treating seniors and their multitudinous issues day in and day out.
As the NYT article pointed out, geriatricians require an extra year or two of training than general internists, yet they are paid about $20,000 per year less. They are near or at the bottom of most rankings of physician salaries. In some cases they make less than half, or worse, of top-ranking specialists.
So while the well-intended Geriatrics Workforce Improvement Act is by all means welcome and can go a long way toward training physicians and other geriatric healthcare professionals, it is not the final answer. There cannot be much real hope that those lofty goals for geriatrician numbers will materialize by 2030 or any time soon, especially if someone doesn’t figure out a way to better compensation.
As we occasionally have to tell a hopeful young Boy Scout, it’s time for some extra brainstorming to figure out how to truly do your best.
Follow Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.