The surging senior population in the U.S. stands in stark contrast to the declining number of medical doctors specializing in geriatric care. According to a recent JAMA Network viewpoint from UMass Memorial Health geriatrician Dr. Jerry Gurwitz, the number of geriatric specialists in the U.S. has fallen almost 40% over the last decade.
Meanwhile, skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) and nursing homes are grappling with the same nurse staffing shortages plaguing other healthcare organizations. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced a proposed rule that would establish minimum nurse staffing levels for nursing homes. CMS estimates that roughly three-quarters of nursing homes would have to strengthen staffing in their facilities in order to comply, amplifying workforce demand in a system already strained by staff deficits. As facilities struggle to maintain target staffing ratios, rural and disadvantaged nursing homes face the threat of additional closures, leaving senior care at risk.
These industry-wide staffing shortages mirror issues playing out in inpatient care. And the parallels don’t stop there. Long-term care facilities can expect to encounter similar outside disruption from retail health organizations as Aging-in-Place technologies introduce in-home alternatives to traditional care. With seniors expected to represent about 20% of the U.S. population by 2030, inpatient, post-acute, SNF and long-term care settings alike will see senior patient volumes rise.
The Domino Effect on Hospitals
The lack of open nursing home beds is already marooning some patients in hospitals. Growth in the senior population, coupled with evolving expectations set by Aging-in-Place technologies, will significantly influence how hospitals strategize and deliver care. As seniors grow accustomed to enhanced virtual care and in-home services, they’ll expect similar accessibility and convenience when transitioning from SNFs to hospitals or vice versa. We’ll likely see accelerated adoption of Hospital-at-Home and other advanced home care models as a result.
Healthcare organizations will grapple with not only an influx in senior patient volumes but also a higher degree of care complexity, as comorbidities become more prevalent in an aging population. Multidisciplinary care coordination will be vital to effective care delivery. One could even posit that in the not-so-distant future, the lines distinguishing SNFs, home care, and hospitals may blur, giving rise to a more fluid, patient-centered healthcare delivery model. Accountable Care Organizations, which emphasize value over volume and coordinated patient care across different providers, may serve as a precursor to the evolving landscape.
Telehealth’s Place in Senior Care
Just as hospitals are reimagining care delivery in response to staffing shortfalls, burnout, and evolving patient expectations, senior care must similarly innovate to get ahead of compounding trends. By embracing models that leverage virtual care, SNFs and other senior care providers can not only better compete but also enrich patient experiences and elevate care delivery standards.
1) Democratizing Access to Scarce Geriatric Specialists
By establishing remote access to the limited pool of geriatricians, SNFs can traverse geographic boundaries. Virtual care ensures seniors, especially those in regions most affected by staffing deficits, aren’t left in the lurch by bringing expert care to them on-screen, anytime, anywhere.
2) Enabling Bedside Teams and Emerging Care Models
Hybrid care models like Virtual Nursing help alleviate pressure on limited bedside staff and improve patient experience by introducing remote support resources to care models. These programs also help establish workflows that lay the groundwork for remote, in-home service expansion.
3) Seamless Care Coordination Connecting Clinical Teams, Patients, and Families
Virtual care fosters collaboration between disparate multidisciplinary care teams, patients, and their families. Recognizing that family members often shoulder caregiving responsibilities for relatives, virtual care facilitates intergenerational support. This is particularly helpful when managing chronic conditions.
As we stand at this crossroads, the increasing importance of tech-enabled care cannot be overlooked. Although virtual engagement won’t be a panacea in senior care, where technology adoption rates may be weaker, it does introduce new ways to better support aging patient cohorts and their care teams. This impending transformation underscores the need for healthcare organizations to be agile, forward-thinking, and willing to embrace change – not just as a response to shifting demographic trends, but as pioneers redefining what comprehensive care for seniors truly entails.