Half of Primary Physicians Say U.S. is Unprepared for Growing Alzheimer’s Demands

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by Mary Chapman |

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An Alzheimer’s Association survey of primary care physicians found that while 87% expect the number of dementia patients to rise within the next five years, half say the U.S. health system is unprepared for the increased burden.

The annual report, “Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures,” provides insight into the latest national data on Alzheimer’s prevalence, incidence, mortality, costs of care, and impact on caregivers. It was released March 11.

A first-time auxiliary report, “On the Front Lines: Primary Care Physicians and Alzheimer’s Care in America,” takes a look at the experiences, training, exposure and attitudes associated with dementia care among primary care physicians (PCPs) and new medical school and residency program graduates.

“The perspectives of primary care physicians raise an important alarm regarding the current reality and future of dementia care in this country,” said Joanne Pike, chief program officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, in a press release.

“The number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is increasing, and primary care physicians, who are the front line of providing care, are telling us the medical profession is not prepared to meet the future demand,” she said. “The Alzheimer’s Association is committed to working with physicians, health systems, policymakers, and others to develop strategies and solutions that ensure timely, high-quality dementia care is available for all who need it.”

According to the report, more than 5 million U.S. residents age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s. By 2050, that figure is expected to nearly triple.

What’s more, while 32% of PCPs reported referring dementia patients to specialists at least monthly, 55% said there aren’t enough experts in their areas.

“The shortage of dementia care specialists needs to be addressed, but considerable focus must be given to ensuring dementia care education, training, and ongoing learning opportunities are available for primary care physicians,” said Pike. “In addition, we need to consider how primary care physicians are supported within the health system to provide robust, quality care. Demands for dementia care are increasing, and primary care physicians are about to be under siege.”

Here’s a snapshot of PCP survey results:

  • 92% say patients and caregivers expect them to know the latest thinking and best practices in dementia diagnosis and care.
  • 82% believe they are on the front lines of providing dementia patients with key elements of care.
  • 53% get questions from patients every few days about Alzheimer’s or other dementia.
  • 87% expect a rise in the number of Alzheimer’s or other dementias within the next five years.
  • 50% believe the medical profession is ill-prepared to care for the rising number of patients with Alzheimer’s or related dementias.
  • 89% consider themselves up to date on scientific developments, but 42% of those concede they’re “only a little” current.
  • 51% feel there are insufficient options for continuing education and training.
  • 92% say dementia care is a swiftly evolving field that requires ongoing learning and training.
  • 78% say medical school and residency cannot sufficiently prepare a physician for the realities of Alzheimer’s and dementia care.

Here is an at-a-glance look at the Facts and Figures report:

  • Two-thirds of U.S. Alzheimer’s patients over age 65 are women.
  • Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, and the fifth-leading cause for those 65 and older.
  • The cost of Alzheimer’s this year is estimated at $305 billion. Out-of-pocket spending is expected to total $66 billion.
  • Payments for healthcare, long-term care and hospice care are projected to rise to more than $1.1 trillion (in 2020 dollars) in 2050.
  • The lifetime cost of care for a dementia patient was put at $357,297 (in 2019 dollars).
  • Last year, caregivers provided about 18.6 billion hours of unpaid care, valued at $244 billion.
  • 48% of all caregivers who provide help to older adults do so for patients with Alzheimer’s or other dementia.
  • About two-thirds of caregivers are female, and one-third of dementia caregivers are daughters of patients.
  • 41% of caregivers have household incomes of $50,000 or less.

The surveys were conducted last December by Versta Research. They included 1,000 PCPs, 200 recent primary care medical residents, and 202 recent medical school graduates. This is the seventh Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report.