Our Training Programs Are Improving Medical Students’ Attitudes Toward Older Adults


BY MAJA GAWRONSKA, MA 

A study shows training programs at the UC San Diego Center for Healthy Aging have improved students’ attitudes toward older adults and have increased their interest in geriatrics as a career.

While the number of older Americans will increase from 15 percent in 2014 to 21 percent in 2030, the gap between demand for and supply of physicians with geriatric expertise will widen. By 2030, there will be fewer than three geriatricians and less than one geriatric psychiatrist per ten thousand adults over age seventy-five. By comparison, there is estimated to be one radiation oncologist per one hundred adults over age sixty-five needing radiation therapy in 2020. Why is this so worrisome? 

Research shows that good geriatric care makes a big difference in quality of life of older patients. Older adults who see a geriatrician tend to be healthier, spend less time in hospitals, and enjoy more years of independent living. Yet, geriatrics is not a popular choice among students and young doctors pondering their career choices. There are a number of discouraging factors, from limited clinical experience in geriatrics in medical school to concerns about inadequate reimbursement. Another important factor is negative attitudes toward aging and older adults. What do we need to do?

In a study published in the journal Gerontology & Geriatrics Education in June 2017, our researchers tackled this question and offered a solution. For more than a decade, the UC San Diego Center for Healthy Aging and the Stein Institute for Research on Aging have been running summer training programs in aging research for students. Now the study results show that the programs are associated with significantly improving medical students’ attitudes toward older adults. 

Research showed an increased early interest in geriatrics, more positive attitudes toward geriatrics careers, an increase in empathy and compassion toward older adults, and a reduction in ageism.

Researchers looked at two national-level, short-term research training programs funded by the National Institutes of Health, Medical Student Training in Aging Research (MSTAR) and Medical Students’ Sustained Training and Research Experience in Aging and Mental Health (M-STREAM). MSTAR is a multisite program supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR), and the John A. Hartford Foundation. It provides funding to first-year medical students from across the United States to participate in an aging-focused summer research training program. M-STREAM, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health was similar to MSTAR except that it focused on geriatric psychiatry or neuroscience research. 

The authors examined the effects of these programs, using the Carolina Opinions on Care of Older Adults (COCOA) Questionnaire. In a sample of 134 participants, COCOA scores improved significantly after completion of the research training program. Interestingly, there was a significant interaction of gender, such that female students had higher baseline scores than males, but this gender difference in COCOA scores was attenuated following the program. 

The study shows that short-term training programs for early stage medical students should be used to address this shortage of physician scientists in geriatrics.