The influx of baby boomers into the Medicare population is causing changes in the health care landscape. But it isn’t all dire.
Baby boomers are the largest generation of Americans ever. Every day, about 10,000 of these individuals turn 65 and become eligible for Medicare. At this rate, the number of Medicare enrollees will increase from 54 million to more than 80 million by 2030.
By then, over 20 percent of the United States’ population will be 65 years of age or older — putting a strain on health care as we know it. “We’ve never seen that dramatic of an increase before,” says Ezequiel Silva III, MD, FACR, chair of the ACR Commission on Economics.
With such a large amount of incoming patients who will increasingly need care as they age, it’s no surprise that health care will undergo sizeable changes to adapt. For some, these changes might conjure images of empty pockets and the end of the medical world. But for radiologists, baby boomer–driven change means a host of opportunities.
Why does a booming Medicare population scare some individuals? “It’s going to put demands on the health care system like we’ve never encountered,” explains Silva. At the most basic level, Medicare is financed by tax-paying workers who contribute to the program, he explains. But with such a large influx, the number of individuals making contributions per Medicare enrollee is quickly decreasing. Initially, that ratio was 4.6 contributors to each Medicare patient, but by 2030, that number will be cut in half.1 Paying for these patients is going to be become increasingly difficult. Adding to that is the strain on the available primary care physician population combined with changing patient expectations.
But all isn’t lost. A lack of primary care physicians means that physician extenders such as nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants will take on more roles in a patient’s care, says Mark O. Bernardy, MD, FACR, chair of the ACR Managed Care Network Committee. And with that comes new roles for radiologists.
"There is evidence these extenders are apt to rely on imaging more than their primary care physician counterparts,” adds Chris Sherin, ACR director of congressional affairs. “This is a great opportunity for imaging specialists to continue to educate the physician extender population about when it’s appropriate to provide imaging services.” (Did you know physician extenders can participate in R-SCAN? Form a partnership today.)
As the boomer generation ages, they also face a variety of challenges to their health. Baby boomers will enjoy longer life expectancies than previous generations, but they also have higher rates of chronic conditions such as heart disease. “As a result, you’re going to see screening services become more important. Catching diseases early generally means a more cost-effective treatment, which is going to be vital with Medicare being financially strained,” says Sherin.
And with new health challenges to tackle, coordination of care is also going to be extremely important in the near future. “Radiology is extremely well positioned to guide the discussion on how to coordinate that care. We do so much coordination as it is — we make the initial diagnosis and then communicate back to various physicians and subspecialists. We’re engaged in screening studies, disease prevention, and disease surveillance. Collaboration and coordination are front and center for us, so it makes sense that we drive discussions around it,” Silva notes.
A changing patient population will also lead to changing patient expectations. Baby boomers will be fairly savvy about the health care system, so their demands will be high, says Silva. “Baby boomers are going to expect favorable outcomes and minimally invasive therapy, as well as maintaining a quality lifestyle. That’s what radiologists do. They diagnose and treat disease in a minimally invasive, evidence-based fashion. So not only will the demand for radiologists increase, but so will the expectation for satisfactory patient care. And it’s up to radiologists to rise up and ensure our health systems deliver,” Silva adds.
With higher expectations comes a rise in consumer-driven health care, says Bernardy. And that has significant implications for radiologists. For instance, patient- and family-centered care is going to be essential, with patient satisfaction taking on increased importance. All patients, including baby boomers, are going to be increasingly technologically savvy; it will be easier than ever to spread ratings and opinions about an imaging facility. Bernardy notes, “It’s an opportunity for us to lead the way in our departments and practices and ensure that the various needs of patients are being met, whatever they are.”
One of those needs that radiologists can fill involves communication. Patients actively involved in their health care will have a lot of questions, from what tests are right for them to how much those tests cost, as well as queries about their individual diagnosis and treatment. With that, if radiologists provide more information on their websites and make themselves available to answer questions, they offer a valuable service. “This provides us with a way to increase customer satisfaction — patients can feel comfortable leaving the imaging suite because they know they’ve made the right choice for their health,” says Bernardy. Silva adds, “It also positions radiologists more securely in a consulting role.”
Ultimately, changes are on the way. But along with challenges comes a lot of good, and a bright outlook for radiologists. Says Sherin, “Like any problem, it’s mostly how you attack it. It’s easy to look at these changes as a burden, but they become easier to tackle once you realize the opportunities that go along with them.”
By Meghan Edwards, digital content specialist