A bill awaiting the governor's signature in South Carolina aims to address the problem of a growing elderly population and a shortage of geriatricians by encouraging medical students to choose the specialty.
The bill would create a program to reimburse school loans for four doctors a year who complete graduate training fellowships in geriatrics or geriatric psychiatry. The bill would create the State Loan Repayment Program in the Office of Aging, which is headed by Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.
"This is so important," Bauer said, "because South Carolina is the fifth biggest state in terms of in-migration of seniors, and we have got to have more doctors."
If Gov. Mark Sanford signs the bill, which his office says he's inclined to do, loans could be reimbursed up to $35,000 for each of the four doctors.
"When you survey fellows in the field, loan forgiveness is high on the list" of possible incentives, said Victor Hirth, M.D., medical director of geriatrics at Palmetto Health and associate geriatrics professor at the University of South Carolina's School of Medicine.
Doctors in the program would have to agree to practice geriatrics in South Carolina for at least five consecutive years and accept Medicare and Medicaid patients. Acceptance of those patients has been a problem in the state and throughout the country because of low government payments.
Currently, there are 30 geriatricians in South Carolina, which has about 500,000 residents 65 or older. That figure is expected to grow by 10,000 this year, according to the Office of Aging, which means the state has about 17,000 patients per geriatrician.
The ratio should be closer to 1,000 patients per doctor, officials said. Most elderly patients now go to general practitioners or internists.