It's happening. The Baby Boomers—the largest segment of the US population—are approaching their golden years. The US Census
Bureau predicts 71 million Americans will be over age 65 just two decades from now. That we know. What we don't know is how
the healthcare system will handle it.
It's not that we didn't see it coming a mile away. Some institutions even put forth efforts to stem the problem before it
worsened—with geriatric training in medical schools experiencing a brief spike in the late 1990s. Since then, however, the
American Geriatrics Society has reported there were fewer than 9,000 certified geriatricians in the United States in 2003,
and now most forecasts predict a dramatic decline from that already low number in the coming years. Regardless, attempting
to prepare the system for an aging population with nothing more than an increased number of specialists is like treating an
eight-inch gash with a Band-Aid.
So what can be done to ensure that US seniors are receiving high quality care throughout their lifespan? The answer lies in
changing how physicians view and approach aging.
Under the current healthcare delivery model, disease detection often happens too late, when conditions are in advanced stages,
prevention is no longer an option, or quality of life has already been severely compromised. Instead of just focusing on training
more geriatricians, we should provide healthcare practitioners and medical students with healthy doses of education on early
detection and preventive care. The US government certainly believes that approach will be beneficial: In 2005, Medicare announced
the availability of preventive benefits designed to provide the maturing population with better care and an overall higher
quality of life. Indeed, going out and proactively working with seniors to protect their health will greatly improve the odds
that Americans will live healthier, longer lives, while creating less strain on the system.
The Baby Boomer Top 10
But shifting the nation's healthcare paradigm from treating ills to preventing them will take the combined support of pharma
companies, medical schools, continuing medical education (CME) providers, and clinicians. All healthcare professionals must
be trained to respond to the issues that affect our aging population, and medical schools, pharma companies, and medical device
companies must do all they can to provide the education needed to ensure practicing clinicians learn about the breakthroughs
that will help their patients.
Top CME providers, medical schools, and industry advocates have already begun leading the charge by targeting practicing healthcare
providers and medical students for a new view of aging that centers on preventive medicine beginning at age 40. This educational
approach advocates healthy lifestyles, early detection, and proactive treatment.
Lifestyle may be the most crucial factor influencing health and quality of life in the later years. Exercise, a healthy diet,
and avoiding tobacco use drastically reduce the likelihood of chronic diseases and disability, even more so than genetics,
according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And it is far less expensive, as well as more effective,
for a 40-year-old patient to change his or her diet and exercise regimen to prevent a heart attack than it is to treat a heart
attack at age 55.
Prevention tools Even though diet and exercise play a large part in healthy aging, pharma can help physicians and other practitioners advocate
healthy lifestyles by keeping them informed about new medical advances that can help their patients in these efforts, like
smoking cessation options.
Pharma can also inform healthcare providers about the benefits of detection and screening beginning at age 40. New colorectal
cancer screenings, for example, can detect cancer when patients are in their 40s, long before screening traditionally begins.