West Virginia Struggles with Shortage of Geriatric Physicians

May 5, 2016

At Edgewood Summit retirement community in Charleston, 93-year-old Mary Mullens is waxing eloquent about her geriatrician.

“Poor old doctor Goldberg…There’s only so much a person can do, and he sure got a lot to do and does it so well,” she said.

Todd Goldberg is one of just 36 geriatricians in West Virginia, according to the American Geriatrics Society. The state needs more than four times that many.

“With the growing elderly population across America and West Virginia, obviously we need healthcare providers,” said Goldberg.

According to Goldberg, West Virginia needs not only geriatricians (a physician specializing in adults ages 65 and older), but nurses, physical therapists, and psychologists who know how to handle this patient population.

“Experts feel that the current workforce is inadequately trained and inadequately prepared to deal with what’s been called the silver tsunami – a tidal wave of elderly people – increasing in the population in West Virginia, across America, and across the world really,” he said.

The deficit of properly trained physicians is expected to get worse. One in five Americans will be eligible for Medicare by 2030.

Few Young Doctors Are Becoming Geriatricians

Goldberg is also chair of geriatrics at West Virginia University-Charleston. It’s home to one of the state’s four geriatric fellowship programs for medical residents. Geriatric fellowships are required for any physician wanting to enter the field.

For the past three years, no students have entered the fellowship program at WVU-Charleston. In fact, for the past three years, no students have enrolled in any of the four geriatric fellowship programs in West Virginia.

“This is not just our local program or in West Virginia, this is a national problem,” said Goldberg.

According to the American Geriatrics Society, only 63 percent of the nation’s geriatric fellowship positions were filled in 2014. As Goldberg put it, why would a resident apply to a West Virginia School, when even the worst student could get into a program like Yale or Harvard?

Goldberg says some young doctors he works with want to go into geriatrics, but crushing student debt forces them into higher paying specialities.

This trend is troubling for West Virginia families.

“It’s kind of scary that they don’t have the care that really they need to help them through these times and help them prolong their life and give them a better life,” said Todd Plumley. His elderly mother has dementia and “a little bit of Alzheimer’s.” There are no geriatricians in Plumley’s hometown so he, or one of his siblings, drives their mother almost 45 minutes to Huntington to see a specialist. Plumley said the effort has helped stabilize his mother’s symptoms.

“Right now, if we didn’t have the knowledge and resource that we did have, I believe my mother would have progressed a lot further along quicker.”

Plumley is in his 50s. If trends persist, and the field of geriatrics continues to contract, in 20 years, should he need specialized care, driving even 45 minutes may not be an option.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.