Every single day, more than 10,000 people living in the United States reach age 65. As aging occurs, their bodies change. Older adults encounter a variety of acute (sudden, severe) and chronic (ongoing) health conditions that make their medical care more complex. More than half of adults age 65 or older, for example, have three or more medical problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and/or high blood pressure.
A geriatrician is an allopathic or osteopathic health care provider who is specifically trained to evaluate and manage the unique health care needs and treatment preferences of older people. Most become certified in internal or family medicine and pursue additional training in treating the special health needs of older patients in order to become board certified in geriatric medicine.
Geriatricians focus on maintaining patient well-being and independent functioning. They diagnose and treat conditions that may commonly occur with age. If they suspect cancer, neurological problems or other serious health issues, they may also refer patients to specialists and work with interdisciplinary teams to coordinate care. Geriatricians may also work with other health professionals who specialize in caring for older adults, including geriatric nurses, geriatric pharmacists, physical therapists, occupational therapists and mental health professionals.
Because many of their patients take a variety of pills every day, geriatricians must closely monitor the side effects of prescribed medications and be aware of potential drug interactions. They also balance the potential benefit of a treatment against the possible risks. For example, while a 30-year-old patient might have surgery to repair a broken bone, the same surgery might pose too many risks for a patient in her 80s.
Geriatricians pay close attention to their patients’ physical and mental functioning. They often are the first to inform a patient when he or she should no longer consider driving or might want to think about transitioning to a supportive living facility. They may also be the first to engage patients and families in advance care planning discussions about long-term care, hospice care, etc.
Geriatricians work in private practices, group practices, long-term and post-acute care facilities and hospitals. They face the same challenges confronting all physicians, including the need for more resources and strategies for building effective relationships with patients and their families. Because patients are usually older, geriatricians also must be emotionally prepared to handle physical and mental decline and death.
On the other hand, geriatricians are gaining new treatment tools and working in a field filled with growing need and rewarding opportunities. Research is improving treatment options for conditions that affect older people, and advances in medical technology now enable geriatricians to treat illnesses and injuries in new ways. Laparoscopic surgery, for example, now makes possible a wide range of surgical procedures that were once considered too risky for older patients.
Geriatricians must complete a four-year undergraduate degree, followed by medical school and a three-year residency, usually in internal or family medicine. Following residency, the physician may practice for a while or apply directly to a geriatric medicine fellowship program.
During geriatric training, geriatricians learn about the many conditions and risks that affect the elderly. They study the impact of aging on the human body and mind, and they learn how to measure and monitor physical and mental function. During their fellowship, geriatricians work with elderly patients, mastering the “soft skills” necessary to earn patient trust and provide compassionate, effective care. They learn how to assess potential health concerns, as well as social, mental and other problems.
- Alzheimer's Association
- American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR)
- American Geriatrics Society
- American Society on Aging
- Eldercare Workforce Alliance
- The Gerontological Society of America
- Health in Aging Foundation
- National Council on Aging, Inc.