Can entrepreneurial geriatrics fight ageism in health care?

Ageism in health care abounds. Older adults are often overtreated or undertreated for various conditions. The presence of things like fatigue, chronic pain, arthritis, and even cognitive impairment are often accepted as “normal” parts of aging — by physicians and patients alike — despite the fact that many are preventable.

According to a recent opinion piece by NBC News, “We medicalize the natural process of aging, then look down on the patients who come seeking treatment while not adequately preparing the doctors they visit to address their particular needs.” This can lead to increased medication-related complications, use of fewer preventive health services, and declining ownership of one’s own care.

While some might look to the medical establishment for the antidote to ageism, I see innovation and consumerism as surer hopes against these trends.

Innovation is the cornerstone of what I call entrepreneurial geriatrics. Creative new companies and ventures are putting the power back in the hands of older adults through user-centered design and crowdsourcing to tackle basic problems older adults face — like frequent falling, vision impairment, and loneliness — as they move through their 70s and 80s.

Take these two examples of entrepreneurial geriatric ventures:

OrCam is a pioneer in the field of artificial vision. Its wearable AI devices can read objects like menus or books and translate that into audio that the wearer can hear. Their technology can transform the lives of people who are visually impaired like Dr. Claes Wollheim, professor emeritus at the University of Geneva, who lost his central vision as a young adult due to retinitis pigmentosa. “Music and literature are my hobbies, and with OrCam I can recognize CDs and read books,” he says. These and other technologies – like one’s that allow older adults to see “around” a cataract – will fundamentally change aging and geriatrics forever.

Everyone’s familiar with Amazon Alexa, the cloud-based voice service powered by artificial intelligence. Beyond just shopping lists and trivia questions, innovators are thinking about new ways that devices like Alexa can combat isolation and loneliness, and can play a key role in keeping people with dementia who live alone safer for longer periods of time. New programs powered by AARP for older adults who use voice-activated technology show encouraging results, including greater connection and positive emotions.

As these examples show, entrepreneurial geriatrics can bridge the gap between innovation and what older adults actually need to stay vibrant, involved, and connected.

When I meet founders and CEOs of entrepreneurial geriatrics start-up companies, they often remind me of medical trainees: bright-eyed, empathetic, a little green when it comes to the complexity of the geriatric population, but eager to help improve the lives of older adults. Though I’ve studied geriatrics for nearly 20 years, it’s these innovators who are cultivating an entirely new mindset for aging care. They know we can do more and better for our aging population.

And not one minute too soon. As the number of older adults expands rapidly and the number of board-certified geriatricians is flat at best, I’ll take as many entrepreneurial geriatrics recruits as I can find.

Marc Rothman is a geriatrician who blogs at The Geriatrician Next Door.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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