Health care for the elderly in Alabama, Florida and Georgia will soon improve following a $432,540 grant that established the Live Oak Geriatric Education Center, a collaborative effort involving the University of South Alabama College of Nursing, Florida State University and Florida A&M University.
Funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration, the geriatric education center consortium provides training in geriatrics for health care providers in professions such as medicine, nursing, pharmacy, rehabilitation therapies and social work.
Older patients are the most frequent users of health care services, medications, nursing home stays and hospitalizations, yet health care providers of all types have received inadequate training. Each of the three states involved in the new geriatric education center has fewer geriatricians per capita that the national average. And like the rest of the nation, the region faces severe shortages of nurse practitioners, pharmacists, social workers and other allied health professionals with special training in geriatrics.
“Older adults are the fastest growing segment of the population in the United States, but there is a shortage of health care providers that focus primarily on this age group,” said Dr. Lynn Chilton, project director for USA’s participation in the center and professor and coordinator of the gerontological nurse practitioner program at USA’s College of Nursing.
According to Chilton, health care for elderly patients can differ substantially from other adult care. Physiological changes that occur when an individual ages can affect immunity, drug absorption and the presentation of illness, among other things.
“Signs and symptoms for certain conditions are different in some cases than they are for younger adults,” Chilton explained. “For instance, very rarely do elderly people present with crushing chest pains when they’re having a heart attack, so health care providers need to be aware of the more subtle signs and symptoms in an older person.”
The Live Oak Geriatric Education Center is one of 35 centers in the nation, but it is the only one to focus on training health care providers who serve the elderly in underserved rural and urban areas in three states. Training will take place in southern Alabama, the Florida Panhandle and southern Georgia.
Two immediate goals of the center consortium are to assess the geriatric education needs of multidisciplinary health care providers in the rural areas of Alabama and to make continuing education for these professionals more accessible.
Access to continuing education has historically been a problem for health care professionals in rural areas because of the distances they must travel to attend classes and meetings. The geriatric education consortium will use technology, in part, to help close the gap by hosting online training programs and videoconferencing.
USA’s College of Nursing hosted its first geriatric education videoconference for rural nurses in March. The live videoconference, held in conjunction with the Alabama State Nurses Association and the Live Oak Geriatric Education Center, was broadcast to six different rural sites throughout the state, providing nurses with training in geriatric clinical management.
Dr. Rebecca Ryan, associate professor and director of special projects at USA’s College of Nursing, coordinated the design and writing of the Live Oak grant proposal, outlining USA’s role in the center. Joyce Varner, an assistant professor in the gerontological nurse practitioner program at USA, serves on the Live Oak Geriatric Education Center faculty.
Dr. Debra Davis, dean of the College of Nursing at USA said, “I am pleased that the College of Nursing was invited to be a partner in this very important project. I think it speaks highly of Dr. Chilton and Ms. Varner’s reputations as experts in geriatric nursing and nursing education. Health care providers in our area have many challenges in providing care for our elders. This project will improve health care outcomes for the elderly by developing a better educated nursing workforce.”