Shortage of geriatricians in Canada creating perfect storm

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

There aren’t enough geriatricians in Canada to cope with the number of older adults, reports a new paper from the University of Waterloo and published in the Canadian Geriatrics Journal.

The paper by researchers at Waterloo, the University of Ottawa and the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging reports that the country’s rapidly aging population and stagnant rate of practicing geriatricians is creating a perfect storm for the health-care system.

“Unless we rapidly increase the number of geriatricians, any changes to the health-care system intended to cope with the aging population will have little impact. The situation is critical,” said Dr. George Heckman, a professor in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences at Waterloo.

There are currently 242 certified specialists in geriatric medicine in Canada, 35 per cent of which are more than 55 years old. According to conservative estimates, the health-care system needs at least 700 geriatricians to meet basic needs.

“Geriatric medicine is a hybridized field that doesn’t focus on a specific organ or disease state. Geriatricians are the decathletes of internal medicine,” said Dr. Heckman, also with the School of Public Health and Health Systems at Waterloo. “Geriatricians are the only specialists trained in the assessment and management of complex seniors with multiple concurrent medical problems, including dementia.”

The paper reports that in some cases, students are actively discouraged from entering the field and given little opportunity to explore it at medical school.

A 2008 survey of 16 Canadian medical schools found that undergraduate students received approximately 82 hours of geriatric teaching, but more than 300 hours of pediatrics education. While trainees in some specialties are facing unemployment, geriatric medicine cannot attract enough recruits to meet the needs of the aging population.

“While some programs are clearly supportive of geriatric medicine, overall, there is inadequate support in Canadian medical schools and internal medicine residency programs,” said Dr. Heckman.

To compound the problem, it is difficult to define geriatric medicine in terms that others outside the specialty find meaningful, and there is growing concern that many geriatricians are not involved in sectors where they could make the greatest impact.

“The geriatric brand needs to be better defined. As it stands we not only have a shortage of resources, but misplaced resources,” said Dr. Heckman.

The paper argues that leadership, vision and action are required now if Canada is to prepare the health-care system for the escalating needs of seniors.

“A call to arms has been sounded,” said Dr. Heckman.

About the University of Waterloo

In just half a century, the University of Waterloo, located at the heart of Canada’s technology hub, has become one of Canada’s leading comprehensive universities with 35,000 full- and part-time students in undergraduate and graduate programs. Waterloo, as home to the world’s largest post-secondary co-operative education program, embraces its connections to the world and encourages enterprising partnerships in learning, research and discovery. In the next decade, the university is committed to building a better future for Canada and the world by championing innovation and collaboration to create solutions relevant to the needs of today and tomorrow. For more information about Waterloo, visit www.uwaterloo.ca.

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