According to the American Geriatrics Society, about 20,000 geriatricians are currently needed to care for the more than 14 million older adults in the United States. But as of 2014, there were only 7,428 certified geriatricians nationwide.
With such a severe shortfall in geriatrician medicine comes a growing concern that seniors are not receiving the care they need.
“Every senior should have a geriatrician or geriatric doctor, and they are few and far between,” says Connie Smith, director of health and wellness at Mercy Ridge Retirement Community in Maryland. “Geriatrics is a specialty and most physicians and hospitals don’t recognize that. A 90-year-old is treated the same as a 50-year-old.”
The Benefits of Geriatric Health Care Providers
As you might expect, health concerns at age 50 are vastly different from needs at 90. Many older adults have multiple health problems and therefore take multiple medications, which can cause them to get lost in a sea of specialists. That’s where a board-certified geriatrician or geriatric medicine health care provider comes in.
“A geriatrician is a medical doctor trained in providing clinical care for adults 65 and older,” explains Smith. “He or she can be either a family practice or internal medicine physician, but with additional training in geriatric care and the special health needs of that population.”
Just as pediatricians specialize in the needs of children, geriatrician health care providers and geriatric doctors specialize in the needs of seniors, helping develop and manage a care plan to address their unique age-related concerns.
“Geriatricians take an interdisciplinary approach to the health care of the older adult and are trained to inquire about their overall quality of life, not just their particular medical issue,” says Smith. “An internist or general practitioner treats patients on a much broader focus, and the older adult may be sent to several specialty practitioners.”
The Impact of Geriatric Care on Seniors
The problem with amassing a slew of specialists is the strain it places on seniors, and the potential of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing, so to speak.
“The senior population has difficulty managing the array of medical professionals they may need,” says Smith. “I see a lot of polypharmacy and of the medical professionals not speaking to one another.”
Because of the sheer number of doctors involved in each senior’s care, Smith sees a serious impact of the geriatrician shortage on the aging population as a whole.
“They will not receive the optimal medical care, and their quality of life could be compromised,” says Smith.
And, as we know, the senior population is not a small one. According to the Administration on Aging, adults age 60 and older are expected to account for 25 percent of the U.S. population by 2030, up from 16 percent in 2000 and 6 percent in 1900.
That’s why, more than ever before, the importance of geriatric medicine cannot be overstated.
“Understanding the person as a whole, and helping them navigate the complex medical system, is of high importance to ensure they receive a high quality of care,” says Smith.