Most seniors tend to see several different doctors. There’s the primary care physician (PCP), of course, and, depending on an elder’s unique health issues, they may also see specialists such as a cardiologist, an orthopedic surgeon, a neurologist, a urologist or a psychiatrist. But, another specialist has been growing in popularity with this demographic: the geriatrician.
Like pediatricians, geriatric physicians are unique in that they specialize in diagnosing and treating patients during a particular stage of life rather than a particular area or function of the body. Essentially a geriatrician is a generalist with expertise in age-related physical and mental health conditions.
So, should a senior continue using their family doctor to head up their medical care team? Is it beneficial to add a geriatrician to this team? Or should a geriatric specialist take over the lead role?
As with most decisions related to elder care, this issue isn’t black and white. It depends on the quality of the relationship a senior has with their current primary care physician, the complexity of their health status and whether they have access to a local geriatrician. (Sadly, there is a severe shortage of healthcare professionals in this subspecialty, so it may be difficult to find a geriatric physician who is accepting new patients.)
Sometimes older adults who do not have any serious health problems decide to stay with their primary care doctors. Often, they have been going to the same PCP for many years and have developed a rapport with them. If a family doctor has been attentive and prudent in providing care over the long term, then it may be worthwhile to stick with their practice. Other times, a senior may proactively decide to also work with a geriatrician. This ensures that the specialist has a baseline to reference if any changes should occur down the road.
Ultimately, a geriatrician can be a wonderful asset for any senior, but this addition or complete switch tends to be most advantageous for those individuals who are managing multiple chronic, progressive health conditions. Juggling several health issues, therapies and medications can be difficult, especially because elders exhibit unique symptoms and tolerate treatments differently compared to younger individuals. In many cases, a PCP doesn’t have the time to sit with older patients to get a detailed picture of their health or have the intricate knowledge of geriatrics to ensure their treatment plan(s) are age appropriate.
Geriatricians use a comprehensive, patient-centered approach to managing health care and improving senior patients’ physical and mental wellbeing and independence. They offer extensive geriatric assessments to gain a clear understanding of a senior’s needs, and they work with the other members of a senior’s care team, including other doctors, social workers, family caregivers, physical and occupational therapists and much more. Geriatric specialists also tend to be more knowledgeable about the resources and supportive services that are available to older adults.
Ultimately, the decision to establish with a geriatrician is up to the senior or their primary caregiver. Even if a complete geriatric assessment isn’t warranted, regular check-ups with a PCP are still important for preventing health problems and identifying any medical issues early on so they can be treated promptly.