Aging baby boomers, a shortage of family doctors and rising healthcare costs affect every corner of the United States. Anniston’s medical community says the area’s healthcare industry is shifting to meet the growing demand on its services.
More healthcare options are available today in Anniston than any time in its history. That’s a rarity in an age when medical facilities are consolidating in large metropolises and moving away from smaller, regional hospitals.
In this instance, Anniston is bucking a national trend, and officials believe services and options will continue to grow and improve so patients do not have to travel out of town or out of state for the best care.
A shared understanding exists — today’s actions or lack thereof will have an impact on the future of health care in Anniston, especially because of the predicted strain by the baby boomers.
One local official said if the right actions and steps are not made to ensure quality health care, the entire area will suffer, especially the aging residents.
“The ‘boomers’ are going to face a situation where most of the need for care giving will fall on themselves and their family members,” Randall Frost, director of Senior Services for the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, says.
All aspects of the health care system in this community, including the area’s two largest hospitals, private doctors and government officials, must start brainstorming about ways to attract physicians and health care business owners and companies to Anniston to meet future health care needs.
It could be too late 20 years from now when the first baby boomer will be 82, and have a potential need for more medical care and a new type of housing.
Who’s gonna be my doctor? There is a shortage of primary care physicians — in pediatrics, internal medicine and family practice. This is becoming an increasing concern for Anniston officials.
Roughly 50 of the area’s nearly 180 doctors are family and internal medicine physicians — of which about six will retire at some point this year.
Officials at Stringfellow Memorial Hospital and Regional Medical Center are kicking it into high gear to recruit and retain family physicians.
Hilary Folsom, manager of physician services at RMC, said the lack of family physicians could be due to lifestyle desires. She said many new medical school graduates do not want to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The specialty practices give them flexibility and, typically, higher salaries.
The biggest risk associated with not having enough family physicians, officials said, will be the reduction of continuous follow-up care.
Local doctors have long waiting lists and often turn away patients — a trend predicted to continue. Emergency rooms are often packed.
Corey Ewing, chief operating officer of Stringfellow Memorial Hospital, said the hospital is making a concerted effort right now to prevent a potential extreme shortage in local family physicians. By year-end, he said, Ewing hopes to hire at least nine new doctors.
“We are going to have to add doctors,” he said.
One future option is to hire hospitalists, who monitor patients in intensive care units, and internalists, who are considered critical care specialists. They are contracted employees of the hospital and are considered primary caregivers within the halls of the hospital. They do not follow up with patients once they leave.
Neither hospital has adopted the idea, yet. But the idea, if more family physicians decide to bypass Anniston, could become reality.
The baby boomer
Anniston officials need to consider how to meet the needs of an aging population, starting now.
According to the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission
Area Agency on Aging, in 2005, Calhoun County had just over 16,266 residents over the age of 65. By 2025, that number will increase to just over 22,520.
If nothing changes, there will not be enough hospital beds, adult day cares, nursing home facilities, assisted and independent living units and in-home health care help for those in need.
Mike Cassidy, owner of the private Autumn Cove assisted living facility in Anniston, said baby boomers would most likely be looking for alternative living arrangements. He said to prevent the lack of appropriate housing, developers will have to start building — and soon — to meet future needs.
Local officials need to partner to recruit and provide incentives to new health care businesses.
To help alleviate some potential strain on the future of the area’s health care system, local officials also need to continue to emphasize preventative and alternative care methods. Frost said if more focus was placed on preventative care and training for friends and family members of the elderly now, future problems could be reduced or eliminated.
“The reality is there is not going to be enough paid people who can be caregivers,” he said. “We have to provide information to teach people to own your own healthy future.”
Where’s the growth?
One concern about the future health care industry in Anniston is the projected rise in the need for more acute in-patient care, which, if not planned for strategically, will stretch the city’s medical facilities to their capacity, warned Dr. Igor Bidikov, a geriatrics specialist.
“As the system stands right now, there will not be enough medical beds because of the foreseen future increase in acute in-patient care the public will seek,” he said. “There is going to be a need to expand the capacities.”
Hospital officials agreed that they will have to add services — and medical beds — to stay competitive and meet the ever-growing needs from patients.
Because more patients who are underinsured or uninsured are making more trips to the emergency room, hospitals will have to expand.
Officials said even today the emergency rooms are constantly filled. They believe, however, that the future will see more patients, especially those with minor problems, using this option.
Stringfellow is considering adding a new patient tower, another operating room and expanding the emergency room. Dates and specifics have yet to be determined.
“Who knows what is going to happen,” said Corey Ewing, Stringfellow’s chief operating officer. “At one point, something is going to have to change.”
Allen Fletcher, former head of RMC, agreed.
“Facilities will have to adapt,” he said.
Currently, RMC has no preliminary plans for expansion. The idea, however, is not out of the question.
“All facilities will see expansion,” Fletcher said.