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Do you need a geriatrician?

Written by Diane Archer

As you get older, it is extremely helpful to have a geriatrician as your primary care doctor. If at all possible, you want a doctor who well understands the health issues particular to older adults. Do you need a geriatrician?

Paula Span reports for The New York Times on the shortage of doctors who are expert at treating older adults. With the population of older adults booming, these doctors are needed more than ever. Older adults sometimes struggle with sleeping, with balance, with side effects from prescription drugs, among other things. Geriatricians are skilled at identifying and addressing these and other issues.

Geriatricians also oversee care for older persons to help promote as good health as possible. For example, my 97-year old dad’s geriatrician got my dad off of a few of the prescription drugs he was taking after testing their efficacy over a several month period and finding that they were not benefiting him. His geriatrician also kept a doctor who saw my dad in the emergency room from prescribing him a new and costly medication he did not need. And, that’s not all.

My dad’s geriatrician arranged for a nurse to visit him every two weeks to check his blood because he is on warfarin, a blood thinner. She prescribed physical therapy for him because he was shuffling his feet when he walked and she worried about his risk of falling. After talking to him and me about his social network, she thought it would be helpful if he had more social interactions. So, she arranged for the hospital social worker to see him and help him find a program that now engages him socially.

Through these services, my dad’s geriatrician has improved his quality of life immeasurably. But, most people are not so lucky as my dad. It can be hard to find a geriatrician today.

There are just 7,000 geriatricians in the US, and not even 3,500 of them practice full-time according to the American Geriatrics Society. A full-time geriatrician can see about 700 patients a year. And, it’s estimated that about 15 million older adults–one in three–need one.

If you do not suffer from multiple chronic conditions, you do not need to see a geriatrician. If you think you or someone you love would benefit from seeing a geriatrician, contact your local hospital about geriatricians in your community. Or, if you’re enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan, contact your plan. You might have a wait a bit for an appointment, but it’s likely worth the wait.

While there’s a shortage of geriatricians, doctors and other health care providers are increasingly aware of their need to understand medical issues of older adults, even if they are specializing in other fields. Today, older adults represent nearly four in ten patients of internists and general surgeons. With the population aging, a large portion of patients are older.

In order to compensate in part for the scarcity of geriatricians, geriatricians are training other doctors, as well as nurses, physician assistants, therapists and pharmacists, about the needs of older adults. And, hospitals are adapting to better meet the needs of older patients through, for example, geriatric emergency rooms. You can read about them on Just Care here.

Recognizing the need for more health care professionals with expertise in the care needs of older adults, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has voted to reauthorize a $41 million educational program to address shortages in the workforce. But, the Republican Senate has not voted to pass it as of yet.

Here’s more from Just Care:

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