You already have a family practitioner, an internal medicine doctor, and probably a few specialists that you see every few months. Do you need a geriatrician too?
What Does a Geriatrician Do?
I spoke with Sheila Talebreza, MD, a professor in the Division of Geriatrics at the University of Utah School of Medicine, and asked her this very question.
She explained that a geriatrics healthcare professional, such as a geriatric physician or nurse, or geriatric psychiatrist, is someone who is specially trained to evaluate and manage the specific needs and treatment preferences of older adults.
“As we age, our circumstances and health needs can make our medical care much more complicated,” said Dr. Talebreza. “For instance, we may respond to medications differently or have multiple medical conditions, such as diabetes, vision impairment and stroke, that need to be managed together.
“Geriatric medicine isn’t about reaching a specific age — like 80 or 90,” she added. “Geriatric medicine is about learning how and why you can benefit from targeted care. Care that’s delivered by a team of professionals who understand and have years of experience managing the medical, social and emotional needs and expectations of older adults.”
The Challenge of Fitting into Traditional Healthcare
Traditional healthcare models can be challenging to coordinate, difficult to understand and, for some patients, entirely unnecessary.
Many older patients visit their primary care provider, family practitioner or the emergency room when new or chronic health complication crops up.
These individuals are usually referred to specialists and may see a different doctor for each of their health conditions (e.g., a cardiologist, dermatologist or neurologist), receiving different treatment plans and prescriptions from each one. These doctors may not know what the other doctors have prescribed and, while they may be experts in their medical fields, they may not be expert at taking care of aging patients.
When patients receive patchwork care, signals get crossed and significant issues get missed. This can put older patients at risk for developing further complications that can land them in the hospital. In fact, older adults represent 40% of all hospitalized patients.
How Geriatric Care Can Help
I asked another doctor, Elizabeth Eckstrom, M.D., M.P.H., Director of Geriatrics at Oregon Health & Science University, to explain how geriatric care can improve an aging adult’s health and quality of life.
She shared five ways:
1. Geriatric Medicine Takes a Person-Centered Approach
“Geriatricians take a person-centered approach to aging that focuses on your life goals and optimizes your independence and quality of life,” said Dr. Eckstrom. A person-centered approach takes into account what’s most important to the patient, whether that’s living independently, joining an assisted living community, aggressively treating their disease or living their life without medical intrusion.
2. Special Geriatric Training
“Geriatricians have special training in problems common to older adults, such as memory impairment, falls and medication use,” added Eckstrom. “A geriatrician can help reduce your risk of developing one of these ‘geriatric syndromes’ and help you and your family to manage problems if they do arise.”
3. Geriatricians Work with Specialists
“Geriatricians work with a team to provide the best possible care for older adults,” noted Eckstrom.” Members of that team can include clinical specialists, physical and occupational therapists, home healthcare providers, social workers and registered nurses.
4. Geriatricians Focus on Quality of Life
Eckstrom added that geriatricians focus on quality of life to help avoid tests and treatments that may do more harm than good. They help patients and families understand that sometimes it’s appropriate to pursue all medical options, but not always. If tests and treatments are too demanding, uncomfortable or invasive, the better option may be to do less, especially if they won’t add to the patient’s longevity or quality of life.
5. Geriatricians Help Coordinate Care
Lastly, Eckstrom said, “Geriatricians help coordinate care so every older adult has the opportunity to age well. Geriatricians look at the patient’s health, lifestyle, family and community support, to make sure all the services they need are in place. In that way, geriatricians support their patient’s safety, independence, health and happiness.”
To find a geriatric specialist in your area, use the American Geriatrics Society’s search tool.