Pennsylvanians 65 and older are facing a unique challenge: their primary care practitioners (PCP) are retiring when their trusted guidance is needed most.
Our state’s population is aging rapidly. An American Community Survey estimated that over one in five Pennsylvanians will be 65 or older by 2030. As we reach 65 and begin pursuing the plans we’ve made for our retirement, it can be easy to forget that our doctors are looking forward to doing the same. Research from the Association of American Medical Colleges shows that over one-third of physicians in the U.S. will reach retirement age in the next decade. The rate of retirement among primary care physicians has been further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the coming years, hundreds of thousands of older Pennsylvanians will find themselves searching for a new primary care practitioner. This can be a frightening prospect. Over the years, our family physicians can become extensions of our own families.
Losing a PCP can feel like parting ways with a trusted friend, regardless of our age. Past the age of 65, however, as our healthcare needs become more prominent and our touches with the healthcare system become more frequent, this loss can be devastating, confusing and intimidating. How do you replace a doctor who has been beside you for every healthcare event you’ve experienced over the past few decades?
Finding a new PCP accepting new patients can certainly be challenging. But finding one that truly understands your healthcare goals can feel impossible. There are additional steps you can and should take when you’re over the age of 65 to ensure you get the healthcare and aging experience you both want and deserve from your PCP. It begins by taking an inventory of your personal goals and preferences.
Your primary care office is more than a phone number to call when you need a prescription refill. PCPs should be the anchor in our aging experience – an experience that goes beyond our surface-level healthcare needs. It is the job of our PCP to help us navigate our healthcare journey, and to do that, they need to not only understand our goals, values, and preferences, but keep them top of mind when we need treatment.
In finding a new PCP, it is important to begin by noting what you’ve appreciated most about the physicians you’ve had along your healthcare journey thus far. How have they made your healthcare experience convenient, comfortable, and customized to your personal needs? Did they take your medical preferences, your personal goals, and the values you hold most dear into account when choosing a treatment?
These attributes are core to your aging experience, and they should be the baseline for what to expect from your new PCP. You should expect your PCP to consider your goals and values as inextricably linked to your clinical health and happiness, and you should make those expectations clear before you begin your journey with them.
Think about what you wish were better about your healthcare experience and what you’d like your PCP’s role to be in helping you achieve your goals as you age. It may be that your previous PCP was not as involved as you wanted them to be in your healthcare journey. This is increasingly the case for many older adults. Aside from annual wellness visits and the occasional follow-up, many adults over the age of 65 are forgoing primary care and increasingly relying on specialists. With their PCP uninvolved and out of the loop, these patients experience less care coordination, higher costs, and more frequent hospitalizations.
You should expect your relationship with your new PCP to be a close one; regularly interacting with your PCP is the best preventive health measure you can take. Begin your relationship with your new PCP with the understanding that they want to see you regularly – they are your partner at all times, supporting your care when you’re healthy and working to find a treatment that works for you when you’re unwell.
Be forthcoming about your concerns and turn to your practitioner to answer any questions you may have about your health, to help you navigate decisions about your care, and to support you as you age.
As we age, our health needs become greater and more frequent. Juggling multiple appointments at various doctors’ offices becomes a greater challenge. Long wait times, limited appointment windows, and drive time to the doctor’s office can make it difficult to get care when you need it.
Healthcare should be convenient and accommodating, and today, there are more options for receiving accessible primary care services than ever before. Look for providers who are willing to meet you where you are. Perhaps that is right in your own home, for a home-based visit. Or maybe that’s on your desktop or mobile phone screen for a virtual visit, whether at home or traveling. Maybe it’s a combination of both, in-person when you need it and remote when you don’t.
Whether you’re expecting it or not, finding a new PCP can be a daunting experience, but older adults cannot afford to let that keep them from getting the care they need. As we part ways with our previous practitioners, it is important that we find a new one to join us as we embark on the next chapter of our healthcare journey.