Health care field shifting to meet demands of senior citizens

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2005

As the overall population of the Kenai Peninsula Borough ages, health care professionals are adjusting to meet the needs of its older citizens.

One such example is the expansion under way at Central Peninsula General Hospital in Soldotna.

According to Chief Executive Officer David Gilbreath, the projected graying of the peninsula means the need for medical services will be on the rise.

"The whole workload continues to grow," Gilbreath said.

"We just have not had the space to meet the needs of the aging population," he said.

Because of the increase in the number of older patients, all the rooms in the expanded hospital will be private rooms.

"Nobody wants to share a room with a high-code patient, or with a 'do not resuscitate' patient," Gilbreath said.

He said by having all private rooms, issues such as conflicts between families or competing television interests are avoided.

More older patients means the hospital needs to prevent disease as well as cure it.

"A major challenge is to focus on the prevention of chronic diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, cardiac and pulmonary illnesses and asthma prevention," he said.

The organization has launched several educational programs to address these needs, such as its 10,000 Steps Program that encourages people to walk that many steps each day to maintain cardiopulmonary health.

Additionally, every patient seen in the hospital's emergency department for cardiac or respiratory problems is assessed for cigarette smoking habits and is counseled on the inherent risks.

"We want to encourage them to quit smoking," Gilbreath said.

CPGH also has smoking cessation programs for its own employees.

Diabetes prevalence is more than twice as high on the Kenai Peninsula than the rest of the state, according to Gilbreath. On the Kenai Peninsula, 7.6 percent of the people have been diagnosed with diabetes. In Alaska, the percentage is 3.5.

"We have a lot of overweight people," he said. Thirty-seven percent of the population has been diagnosed for being at risk for being overweight. Twenty-six percent are at risk for obesity.

"Our 10,000 Steps Program has been very successful over the year to get people in shape," Gilbreath said.

The number of people suffering from depression also is high on the peninsula.

"Seventeen percent of the adult population has been diagnosed for depression," he said.

In response, CPGH has partnered with the Cottonwood Clinic to provide mental health services. Gilbreath said Central Peninsula Counseling also is available to help in the community.

Oncology, or the treatment of cancer patients, also continues to grow as the population ages, and Gilbreath said the hospital is expanding its physical presence in that area, as well.

When CPGH first opened in 1971, 5,000 people were in its service area. Today the hospital counts more than 35,000.

Additionally, the number of employees at that one hospital is now 400, nearly double what it was just 15 years ago.

Overall, the number of people employed in health services on the Kenai Peninsula is approximately 2,200, including 400 at CPGH and 268 at South Peninsula General Hospital in Homer.

The total includes 207 employees in offices and clinics of medical doctors and 123 in dentists' offices, according to statistics provided by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Community and Economic Development Division.

In 2004, the number of physicians and osteopaths here totaled 47; dentists numbered 30; and psychologists six, according to Jeanne Camp, economic analyst for the borough.

Mean wage rates for medical and public health social workers in Alaska was $19.86 with licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses earning $17.99 on average and registered nurses earning $26.76.

Generally speaking, Gilbreath said the number of skilled nurses in the central Kenai Peninsula area is "in good shape over the year."

"Some shortages in nursing occur in the summer vacation months," he said.

"We have been helped by the nursing (training) programs, particularly the Weber State University program," Gilbreath said.

While he acknowledged some difficulty in maintaining adequate staffing levels, he said the turnover rate at CPGH has gone down from 25 percent two years ago to 16 percent annually.

He also said the hospital has "a lot to offer to physicians coming to this area."

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