As the United States continues to grow older, the Virginia Center on Aging at Virginia Commonwealth University has been awarded a $3.75 million grant to improve geriatrics care in the state.
The five-year award from the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Geriatrics Workforce Enhancement Program will support programs to improve training for health professionals who care for older adults, skills of family caregivers who provide long-term care, and knowledge among older Virginians about their own health and well-being, said Edward F. Ansello, Ph.D., director of the Virginia Center on Aging.
“We’re trying to improve health by training health care providers, family caregivers and older adults,” Ansello said. “This is really an issue that speaks to the core of what's happening to this country: We're getting older. We've been talking about this for decades and now it's here, and the issue of quality geriatrics care is not going to solve itself.”
In the United States, less than 1% of licensed physicians and less than 3% of nurses, nurse practitioners, dentists and therapists hold added qualifications in geriatrics, Ansello said. Programs developed by the Virginia Center on Aging to train physicians, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, therapists and other providers in geriatrics care help create a fuller perspective on the older patient. Programming supported by the federal grant is facilitated by the Virginia Center on Aging’s Virginia Geriatric Education Center, a consortium of VCU, the University of Virginia, Eastern Virginia Medical School and — as of July 1 — George Mason University. The consortium includes experts in dentistry, medicine, nursing, occupational therapy, patient counseling, pharmacy, physical therapy, social work and speech pathology, among other fields.
“The benefit is you have all these people who contribute a perspective on the older patient, so collectively we have a better appreciation of the whole older adult,” Ansello said. “As we get older, one organ system or another will have some problem. And we tend to be treated by specialists in that one aspect. And what happens over time is that somebody knows an awful lot about an awful little of the person, and almost nobody knows about the whole person. Our approach is to bring all the players to the table.”
The grant will support many programs to improve care of older adults in Virginia, Ansello said. Programs will focus on quality measures related to dementia care, training and education on falls prevention, advance care planning, reducing opioid risk, and improved care of serious chronic health conditions, said Peter A. Boling, M.D., professor and chair of the Division of Geriatric Medicine at the VCU School of Medicine.
“Care of persons with dementia and poor health is increasingly dominant in our society, is often fragmentary, and provided by workers who lack formal education in geriatric care principles,” Boling said. “We will quantitatively measure change in clinical practice resulting from educating clinical workers.”
Some community education efforts are provided through SeniorNavigator, a web resource run by the nonprofit organization VirginiaNavigator that provides free information about health and aging resources available to Virginians, and the Richmond Health and Wellness Program, in which teams of VCU students and faculty meet with low-income older adults living in Richmond high-rise residences.
“These are places where health literacy levels are relatively low and where people without intervention would use emergency department resources for their regular care,” Ansello said. “And what we found is ambulance use and high-cost use of health services plummets when you help educate people to know about their own health.”
The Virginia Center on Aging is part of the VCU College of Health Professions and is the only center in Virginia to receive funding through the Geriatrics Workforce Enhancement Program. Its Virginia Geriatric Education Center has been funded continuously since 2010.