Geriatric doctor shortage causes alarm

By the year 2030, 20 percent of the population will be 65 or older — about 70 million Americans — and the medical community is sounding the alarm. Because as more baby boomers become seniors, there are fewer doctors who specialize in senior health care.

For Dr. Laura Mosqueda, specializing in health care for seniors came naturally.

"I had wonderful role models in terms of my grandparents," Mosqueda says. "They were the only babysitters I ever really knew."

But Mosqueda, who runs a geriatric health care program at the University of California, Irvine, is rare.

"It’s always been a small number who have gone into geriatrics," says Dr. David Reuben, president of the American Geriatric Society. "Unfortunately, that number is actually declining."

In 1998, there were about 9,000 geriatricians. Today there are just 6,700.

When NBC News asked a class of medical students for a show of hands of how many plan to specialize in geriatrics, just one hand out of 100 went up.

"Watching people lose their mental faculties," explains medical student Matthew Holve, "it's just emotionally too taxing for me."

There's also the issue of lifestyle. Many medical students are pursuing specialties with 9-to-5 hours and fewer emergency calls. Others want to get rid of those big college loans more quickly, so they’re going after specialties that pay a lot more than geriatrics. Geriatricians, often the lowest-paid physicians, rely mainly on Medicare reimbursements.

"You'll get reimbursed better if you remove a wart than if you take the time to talk about how somebody’s doing after their husband passed away," Mosqueda says.

David Reuben predicts a crisis in senior health care as baby boomers age.

"This is going to be the Hurricane Katrina of 2020," he says. "The cost of caring for these older people is going to be enormous."

Many medical schools are pushing the government to offer students financial incentives to pursue geriatrics. They say they're hoping policy-makers grow wiser — as the U.S. population grows older.