Baby boomers will experience more chronic conditions as they age, adding new demands to an already stressed health care system.
Six out of 10 boomers will have at least one chronic condition like diabetes by 2030 when the last wave of their generation reaches 65, warned First Consulting Group, a health care consulting firm, and the American Hospital Association in a new report.
It's expected that by 2030, about 14 million Boomers will be living with diabetes, the study found. Almost half of the boomers will have arthritis by 2030, and more than 21 million - one out of three boomers - will be considered obese.
"The good news is more of us will be active and enjoying our later years," said Rich Umbdenstock, president of the AHA. "But to meet the health challenges that come with that, we will need a greater focus on wellness and prevention, new approaches to care delivery, and a new look at the American health care system."
Meeting challenges means focusing on health care staffing. The report anticipates that over the next 20 years boomers will make up a greater proportion of hospital stays as they live longer but with many complex conditions. Already, the number of physician visits has been increasing for all adults, up 34 percent over the last decade. But by 2020, boomers will account for four in 10 office visits to physicians, the study found.
However, the report found the number of registered nurses, primary care and specialty physicians will not keep pace with that demand. More than 8 percent of nursing positions were vacant as of December 2006, while 8 percent of pharmacist positions, and nearly 6 percent of laboratory and imaging technician jobs were not filled at year's end, the report found. The physician shortage is projected to steadily increase as the boomers age, with a gap of 130,000 specialists and over 60,000 primary care providers predicted by 2020. The anticipated gap spurred the Association of American Medical Colleges to call for a 30 percent increase in medical school enrollments.
Staffing is important because boomers "represent the beginning of a sustained trend toward more complex and demanding patients that will require substantial changes to the health care system," the report said. "Hospitals, a critical player, have begun to take on these challenges, but there is still more to be done."
That includes better coordination of care, as well as engaging patients, hospitals and other providers that can improve patients’ quality of life and reduce health care costs.
At the same time, new technology offers some hope in improving boomer's quality of life through procedures like minimally invasive surgery, imaging techniques that "see" through the skin, and remote care technologies. Hospitals, too, are placing greater emphasis on staying ahead of the curve. About 40 hospital systems in the US have joined HealthTech, an organization that provides technology forecasts and helps hospitals prepare for implementing new technology, the report found.
But given the expected baby boomer strain, hospitals may not be able to do it alone. Beyond the medical model of care, there's growing emphasis on holistic approaches to health and wellness.
Dr. Joseph Smith of the Lighthouse Wellness Center in San Rafael, Calif., which offers chiropractic, acupuncture, massage therapy and other alternative medicines, said he helps many baby boomer patients that suffer dietary deficiencies including blood sugar disturbance. That contributes to the breaking down of bodies of "sugar-holics" due to excess acid and tissue aging at an increased rate, Dr. Smith said.
"My job becomes finding out what's going on in their lifestyle and tipping the scale toward health," he said.