Lindsey Biltoft, RN, and Tara Huber, RN, Coordinators of Surgery Thayer County Health Services, Hebron, Neb.
Healthcare professionals are well aware that the aging population will have a serious impact on their work in the coming years. By the year 2030, projections show that Americans over the age of 65 will number more than 70 million. This will amount to almost 20 percent of the U.S. population, versus today’s figure of just 13 percent. Data also shows that seniors make up a higher percentage of the rural population than they do in the country as a whole. This information highlights the importance of rural facilities in delivering high quality healthcare to seniors.
While most facilities are very experienced in treating older people, the changing nature of senior-aged patients may soon require significant adjustments to healthcare offerings and practices. The coming wave of aging baby boomers, with their unique psychographic profiles, promises to change the way many facilities serve the senior population. Our facility, Thayer County Health Services in Hebron, Neb., is a 19-bed critical access hospital and clinic, and is beginning to consider how we can best serve this wave of patients while using our resources most efficiently.
The Needs of Boomers
The boomer generation is often noted for its “forever young” attitude and its resistance to the idea of aging, but in many ways, this generation is aging less gracefully than their parents. A 2007 study found that the oldest group of the boomer population was in worse health than people 20 years older. This group was more likely to report trouble walking long distances or lifting 10 pounds, and suffered more frequently from chronic conditions. Currently, 62 percent of baby boomers suffer from at least one chronic health condition, which may include hypertension, high cholesterol, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease or cancer. The number of boomers with multiple chronic conditions, currently 8.6 million, is expected to increase to 37 million by 2030.
For boomers who do remain active, a different set of problems can take effect as joints wear out and activity takes its toll on aging bodies. Some healthcare practitioners have dubbed this trend “boomeritis,” as middle aged patients increasingly seek treatments such as knee and hip replacements, and solutions for tendinitis, stress fractures, and more. By 2003, sports injuries became the number-two reason for visits to a doctor’s office nationwide. It is projected that by 2030, eight times more knee replacements will be performed than today.
Aside from the issues that come with boomers’ greater degree of wear and tear on the body, classic age-related conditions will remain significant for this generation as well. For example, it is estimated that 20.5 million Americans 40 years of age and older suffer from a cataract in either eye. By 2020, this is expected to increase to 30.1 million.
These statistics show the level of demand for services that boomers will place on the healthcare industry. While meeting this increased need for care would be enough of a challenge for healthcare providers, they must also consider how boomers differ from today’s seniors in the way that they participate in their healthcare. Boomers are known to have a higher level of engagement in their healthcare, seeking out research online and participating actively in the planning and decision making. One explanation for this is the higher level of education completed by this generation, which has a high school graduation rate of 90 percent, versus just 68 percent for their parents’ generation. More informed patients can be expected to have more questions, and more opinions, about their healthcare providers’ recommendations.
How Rural Facilities Can Meet the Challenge
In light of this changing healthcare climate, rural facilities face a number of challenges in catering to an aging boomer demographic. However, these facilities also have a number of qualities that can be used to their advantage. For example, by being able to provide services to boomer patients close to their homes, these healthcare facilities can fit in with the anti-aging boomer mindset, in that a healthcare procedure is less of “a big deal” in the patient’s mind if it is delivered in their home community. The lack of travel fees can also be reassuring to budget- minded patients who are looking forward to a lengthy retirement, albeit on a limited income. Finally, the vast majority of patients state that they do not want to be a burden to their family, and being able to receive healthcare locally helps them meet this goal.
It is clear that it is increasingly important for rural facilities to offer healthcare services that cater to the boomer population. However, implementing the necessary changes can often be a challenge for facilities with limited budgets and resources. The process can be particularly difficult for procedures that require use of expensive equipment and technology. It makes little sense for the facility to invest in equipment that may not be used every day, but at the same time, it is important to have the service available to patients.
There are some creative options, though, that our facility uses in order to provide surgical services to patients without having to purchase equipment. One example of this is our work with Sightpath Medical, a provider of mobile cataract surgery equipment. Through this agreement, Sightpath Medical transports the necessary surgery equipment to our facility for our cataract surgery days, which are scheduled every six weeks. A Sightpath Medical technician, who is certified by the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA), sets up the equipment and stays on site during the procedures in order to provide assistance and technical support. With this arrangement, our surgery days run very smoothly. Having the Sightpath Medical technician on site to set up the equipment and perform any necessary troubleshooting helps keep us on schedule, and frees up our staff to attend to other duties. The necessary supplies are always provided, and our facility no longer has to order and restock the supplies. The service is paid for on a per-case basis, making it simple for us to administer and afford.
Our facility has been utilizing this service for approximately two years. Prior to this arrangement, our cataract surgeon kept his own surgery equipment at the facility. However, because cataract surgeries were only performed every six weeks, it was not cost effective for him to maintain his equipment here. It also created problems related to storage of the equipment between the surgeon’s visits. By working with Sightpath Medical, our surgeon is able to select exactly which equipment he prefers, and can also upgrade at any time. We are able to provide cataract surgery with state-of-the-art equipment, without having to deal with capital investments, purchase orders, maintenance fees, service agreements, or inventory management. We use a similar outsource provider for total knee replacement surgery, which we have seen become more popular with the boomer population as well.
Our experience has shown us that tapping into the resources of outsourcing providers can be a convenient way for facilities to increase their service offerings while minimizing hassle and financial burdens. As the boomer population continues to age, being able to cater to patients close to home will become even more vital for healthcare providers, and with the outsource services we have in place, we feel well positioned to continue to meet the community’s needs in Hebron.