Half of primary care doctors say they aren't ready for increase in Alzheimer's cases

Doctor and patient with heldheld device
As the population ages, primary care physicians say they aren't prepared to deal with a surge of patients with Alzheimer's disease and dementia. (Getty Images)

While they are on the front lines of diagnosing and providing care for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, half of primary care physicians say the medical profession is not prepared to meet an expected increase in demands.

A survey of 1,000 primary care physicians, 200 recent primary care medical residents and 202 recent medical school graduates found 50% say they are not prepared to handle the increasing number of patients with dementia they expect to be treating in the next five years, according to a report (PDF) from the Alzheimer’s Association.

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The report estimates that barring any medical breakthroughs, the number of people age 65 and over with Alzheimer’s dementia may almost triple by 2050. Nearly 9 in 10 primary care doctors (87%) said they expect to see an increase in patients living with dementia in the next five years.

Many doctors are also not confident in how to care for patients with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. The survey found:

  • Only about 40% of the physicians say they are “never” or only “sometimes comfortable” diagnosing Alzheimer’s or other dementias.
  • Nearly one-third (27%) report they are uncomfortable answering patient questions about Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
  • 22% of all primary care doctors said they had no residency training in dementia diagnosis and care. Of the 78% who did undergo training, 65% said it was “very little.”

That’s a big problem.

“The perspectives of primary care physicians raise an important alarm regarding the current reality and future of dementia care in this country,” said Joanne Pike, chief program officer of the Alzheimer’s Association, in an announcement. The organization is ready to work with physicians, health system policymakers and others to develop strategies and solutions that ensure dementia care is available for all who need it, she added.

RELATED: Hospitals are often unprepared to meet the needs of patients with dementia

Doctors said patients and caregivers expect them to know the latest developments and practices around dementia diagnosis and care, and 53% said they field questions from older patients every few days.

Adding to the problem is the fact that there is a severe shortage of dementia care specialists, including neurologists. A state-by-state analysis found 14 states need to increase the number of geriatricians at least fivefold to meet projected numbers of patients. While one-third of primary care doctors say they refer dementia patients to specialists at least once a month, more than half (55%) say there are not enough specialists in their area to meet patient demand, a problem more common in rural areas.

Along with increasing the number of specialists, there needs to be more dementia care education, training and ongoing learning opportunities for primary care physicians, Pike said.