Dear Savvy Senior: What can you tell me about geriatrics doctors? My father, who’s 82, takes eight different prescription drugs for different health issues but hasn’t been feeling himself lately. I’m wondering whether he would benefit by seeing a geriatrician in place of his regular primary care physician. — Concerned Daughter
Dear Concerned: If your dad is dealing with a variety of health problems and is taking multiple medications, a visit to a geriatrician may be just the antidote to help get him back on track. Here’s a rundown of the different types of health conditions geriatricians treat and some tips to help you locate one in his area.
For starters, it’s important to know that geriatricians are family practice or internal medicine physicians who have had additional specialized training to manage the unique and oftentimes multiple health concerns of older adults. Just as a pediatrician specializes in caring for children, a geriatrician is trained to provide care for seniors, usually over age 75.
While most doctors, and even general practitioners, are trained to focus on a person’s particular illness or disease, geriatricians are trained to look at all aspects that can affect senior patients — not just the physical symptoms. They also often work with a team of other health care professionals like geriatric-trained nurses, rehabilitation therapists, nutritionists, social workers and psychiatrists to provide care. And, they will coordinate treatments among a patient’s specialists.
Patients who can benefit from seeing a geriatrician are seniors with multiple health and age-related problems such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, confusion and memory problems, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, diabetes, hypertension, depression, respiratory problems, osteoporosis, arthritis, chronic pain, mobility issues, incontinence, vision and hearing impairment, and trouble with balance and falls.
Geriatricians are also particularly adept at tackling medication problems. Because many seniors, like your dad, take multiple medications at the same time for various health conditions, and because aging bodies often absorb and metabolize drugs differently from younger adults, unique side effects and drug interactions are not uncommon. A geriatrician will evaluate and monitor you dad’s medications to be sure they are not affecting him in a harmful way.
Geriatricians can also help their patients and families determine their long-term care needs, like how long they can remain in their own homes safely without assistance, and what type of services may be necessary when they do need some extra help.
But not all seniors need to see a geriatrician. Seniors who have fewer health problems are just fine seeing their primary care physician.
Find a geriatrician
Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of geriatricians in the U.S., so depending on where you live, finding one may be challenging.
To locate one in your area, use Medicare’s online physician search tool. Just go to Medicare.gov/physiciancompare and type in your ZIP code, or city and state in the “Enter your location” box, and then type in “geriatric medicine” in the “Search” box. Or, you can also get this information by calling Medicare at 800-633-4227. The American Geriatrics Society also has a geriatrician-finder tool on its website at Healthin Aging.org.
Keep in mind, though, that locating a geriatrician doesn’t guarantee your dad will be accepted as a patient. Many doctors already have a full patient roster and don’t accept any new patients. You’ll need to call the individual doctor’s office to find out.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.