The best doctor for you

Created date

April 28th, 2020
This cartoon of several different doctors represents the benefits of having several different specialists in your support system.

The lifespan of Americans is increasing, and the population is steadily skewing toward seniors. We need more doctors to care for older adults. But as it stands now, according to the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), there are fewer than 7,300 geriatricians practicing in the U.S. To provide adequate care to the aging population, the U.S. will need 30,000 by 2030. 

What sets geriatricians apart

Geriatricians can come from any specialty, but typically, they have a background in internal medicine or family medicine, then go on to earn a specialty certificate in geriatrics.

Several factors set geriatricians apart. They are experts in managing people with multiple conditions and keeping them out of the hospital and nursing facilities. In addition, according to the AGS, benefits for patients who choose geriatricians include increased patient and family satisfaction, improved social functioning, decreased rates of depression, and better preservation of physical function.

It’s not just doctors who are geriatric experts. Geriatric health professionals also include nurses, advanced practice nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists, therapists, and social workers.

“Geriatric health care professionals treat the same chronic medical conditions and functional impairments as other health care professionals, but they understand the special care and circumstances that go along with aging,” says Teri Dreher, R.N., C.C.R.N., iRNPA, chief advocate and president of NShore Patient Advocates in Chicago, Ill.

Some special circumstances include the need for complex care collaboration and community resources, which can be vital when a senior is juggling several medical conditions, medications, and health care appointments while still trying to stay involved in their regular activities. Geriatricians receive special training in care coordination and accessing community resources.

But I love my doctor!

“If you are in fairly good health, it’s not imperative for you to see a geriatrician just because you turn 65,” says Jennifer Tam, M.D., medical director at Linden Ponds, an Erickson Living-managed community in Hingham, Mass. “If you are happy with your current provider, there’s no reason to change unless your care becomes complicated and you need more support.”

While a primary care or internal medicine doctor may not have a geriatric certification, they can still be experts in caring for the aging simply because of their training and experience. “Internal medicine providers can manage common chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and certain respiratory ailments,” Dreher says. 

Some seniors choose to receive their care from specialists other than primary care or internal medicine providers. “A cardiologist may be the best person to provide primary care for a long-term patient with a history of heart disease,” Tam says.

The AGS states that someone may benefit from seeking primary care from a geriatrician if they are experiencing significant functional impairment because of their medical conditions, or when caregivers feel overwhelmed with managing their loved one’s care.

“When a senior begins to develop age-related syndromes such as dementia, falls, malnutrition, and incontinence, then a geriatrician may be the best choice,” Tam explains. “Ultimately, however, it is up to you to choose.”

Did you know? A doctor of osteopathy (D.O.) receives the same training as an M.D., with additional experience in the nervous system, musculoskeletal system, and chiropractic care.

Decoding the alphabet soup

Your main health care provider may be a doctor, nurse, or other advanced care professional. But do you ever wonder what all those letters after their name mean?

Usually the first set of letters is the state licensure abbreviation, such as M.D. (medical doctor), R.N. (registered nurse), or P.A. (physician assistant). 

M.D. can also stand for the degree earned in medical school, as can D.O. (doctor of osteopathy). Nurses and physician assistants often have doctoral degrees, too, such as doctor of nursing practice (D.N.P.) and doctor of physician assistant studies (D.P.A.S.).

After licensure or practice-related degrees, you might see an academic abbreviation included such as doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.), master of science (M.S.), or master of arts (M.A.).

Certification(s) and/or fellowships are usually listed last. They represent extra training in a particular specialty and are usually three or four letters in length. There are hundreds of certifications and fellowships for each specialty, so you might want to ask what they mean if you see one.