MUSC Helping Meet the Growing Need for Specialists in Gerontology

by Barry Waldman

For the last 11 years and for the next seven going forward, almost 10,000 people are every day celebrating their 65th birthday. The tidal wave of Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are crashing upon the shores of health care, creating a boom in the field of gerontology, like the proverbial pig through a snake. The problem: there aren’t enough people trained to care for older people in the healthcare system.

For example, the American Geriatrics Society estimates that the U.S. needs about 20,000 geriatricians – physicians who specialize in elder issues – but only 7,300 are licensed. The demand is expected to grow to 30,000 in just seven years.

“Geriatrics healthcare professionals understand the unique health circumstances and preferences that come with aging. They also have expert training in collaborating with one another—a critical asset, since more than half of older Americans are managing two or more chronic conditions, and many older adults are making decisions with partners, family members, or other significant people involved in their care,” the American Geriatrics Society says on its website..

Similarly, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) projects the need for 70,000 social workers with a specialty in gerontology.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Many health care practitioners do provide care to elderly patients as part of their everyday practice. An NASW survey has found that nearly 75% of social workers are already involved in some capacity with older adults, though most have no formal preparation in working with clients in that stage of life.

MUSC Training RNs In Gerontology

Registered nurses represent the front line of health care and much of the burden for the care of elderly patients does and will fall on them. At MUSC, RNs seeking an advanced practice degree as a nurse practitioner can earn a master’s or doctorate in the Adult Gerontology Nurse Practitioner (AGNP) track. These practitioners specialize in providing primary care to patients from 12 to end-of-life, with a particular focus on the growing cohort of seniors. They practice in nearly every healthcare setting except obstetrics and pediatrics – including specialty clinics, rehabilitation centers, assisted living and skilled nursing facilities, and palliative care and hospice facilities.

Dr. Whitney Smith is a nurse practitioner with two decades of experience, an assistant professor at MUSC and its lead AGNP faculty. She says students in the AGNP track receive additional education focused on older adults. That includes a deeper understanding of dementia and other cognitive impairments, progressive disorders like kidney failure and COPD, and end-of-life care and decision-making.

“In clinical instruction, students will learn to address conditions medically such as, heart disease, chronic kidney disease, delirium, cognitive impairments, heart failure, incontinence, osteoarthritis and other conditions more typical of the aged,” Dr. Smith said. “They practice having end-of-life discussions with families and working as team to determine diagnoses and treatment plans.”

The Market Opportunities for Gerontology Nurse Practitioners

Enrollment in gerontology programs is failing to keep pace with demand across the board in health care. Leaders in health care institutions nationwide are concerned about serious shortages in the necessary expertise to care for this massive population of aging adults for the next four decades.

The problem extends beyond the training of new practitioners. Increasingly, leaders in the field are themselves aging out and requiring the care they used to provide. This trend exacerbates the shortage and bodes ill for future care unless a massive effort is made to create pathways to this specialty.

Students are not flocking to this burgeoning discipline. There are many theories about why this is true, but one that is beyond dispute is that most students are young. They may not be exposed to the wisdom of the aged and may harbor misconceptions about what aging is about. As Baby Boomers have begun to demonstrate, getting older and becoming old are not the same thing.

The silver lining is the incredible opportunities available in the gerontology field.  “This should be the time for the AGNP,” said Dr. Smith “As the number of older adults increases, we face a need for more specialized medical providers focused on this population. AGNPs are in prime position to fill this gap and provide high quality health care to older adults and their families.”

If you are interested in learning more about becoming an AGNP, visit or contact Whitney Smith at [email protected]