Specialists in Aging: Do You Need a Geriatrician?
When your children were little, you probably took them to a pediatrician. After all, babies and children have specialized needs that differ from those of adults.
On the other end of the spectrum, older adults often have different medical concerns than they had in their 30s or 40s. Yet many people have no idea that there are specialists just for seniors.
“Geriatricians specialize in the healthcare needs of people who are aging,” says Johns Hopkins geriatrician Samuel C. Durso, M.D. “As we get older, our bodies change. The kinds of conditions we have and how those conditions interact with each other differs from what adults under the age of 60 typically experience.”
Why Geriatricians are Important
Geriatricians are primary care doctors who have additional specialized training in treating older patients. They can practice in outpatient settings, nursing facilities or hospitals.
Geriatricians often work as part of a treatment team with other primary care providers, focusing on helping older patients who have multiple health problems or complex conditions. “The role of the geriatrician is to coordinate overall care with other physicians and guide the patient in making treatment choices,” says Durso.
There’s no right age to start seeing a geriatric specialist, according to Johns Hopkins geriatrician Michele Bellantoni, M.D. A geriatrician can be helpful if you:
- Suffer from multiple medical conditions
- Find that treatment for one medical condition negatively affects a second condition
- Are experiencing functional decline or physical frailty
- Have a disease associated with aging, such as dementia, incontinence or osteoporosis
- Manage multiple medications (especially if they’re causing side effects that interfere with your well-being)
How Can a Geriatrician Help Me?
Geriatricians are experts in seeing the big picture, Bellantoni notes. Many older adults, for instance, take multiple medications to treat a number of conditions. Geriatricians are well-versed in drug side effects and the negative effects that may occur from taking multiple drugs. They can help prioritize which drugs are necessary and which can be skipped.
“Often, the geriatrician will not treat every active medical condition with a medication,” Bellantoni says. “We prioritize the conditions and medications to maximize the patient’s physical functioning and well-being.”
Another benefit of geriatricians is time, explains Bellantoni. Geriatrics practices usually schedule longer appointments to make sure that older adults have enough time to discuss all of their medical concerns with their doctors.
“Those who are trained in geriatric medicine are superb primary care providers, focusing on wellness and preventive health as well as managing chronic medical conditions,” Bellantoni says.
Can a Geriatrician Help if I've Been Hospitalized?
In short: Yes. Research shows that compared to older adults who receive standard hospital care, those who receive care from a geriatrician in the hospital have better function when discharged. Patients who have specialized geriatrics care in the hospital are also more likely to go directly home after discharge, rather than to rehabilitation centers or nursing homes.
How to Pick a Geriatrician
Ready to sign on? Durso recommends considering these factors when choosing a geriatrician:
- Training: Ask whether the geriatrician has received special certifications or training. Also note whether he or she is affiliated with an academic medical center, which generally offers patients the latest advances in care.
- Accessibility: Make sure the practice accepts your insurance. Learn about office hours, who you’ll speak to after hours and how the geriatrician manages emergencies. Also inquire whether the geriatrician provides any at-home care services.
- Communication: Find out how the geriatrician coordinates with specialists such as cardiologists, pulmonologists and neurologists. Also ask how he or she prefers to communicate with you: phone calls, electronic portals or face-to-face meetings?
- Philosophy: Make sure you and your geriatrician are on the same page when it comes to your health goals, keeping in mind that those goals may change over time. Also ask what other programs or services he or she might offer. Some geriatricians offer programs for staying healthy, such as exercise classes or fall-prevention education.
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