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What is a Geriatric Doctor: What They Do and How to Choose One

Reviewed by 
Brian Kurtz, DO

Article at a glance

  • There are a diverse spectrum of healthcare professionals that specialize in geriatric care. Read on to learn more about what kinds of healthcare providers practice geriatric care and specialize in care for medical concerns that affect older adults.

  • Geriatric doctors specialize in senior health care, leading to the treatment of many short-term and long-term medical conditions that are closely linked to aging in older adults. Read on to learn more about the medical conditions geriatricians specialize in.

  • Due to the wide range of conditions geriatricians treat, it’s common for them to practice in a variety of healthcare facilities. Read on to learn more about where geriatricians treat their patients.

  • There are many factors to consider when choosing the right geriatrician (location, experience, availability, and more). Read on to learn more about what factors to consider when narrowing down doctors.

  • Insurance and insurance coverage should be a priority when it comes to choosing a geriatric doctor. Read on to learn more about Medicare and geriatric care.

Wondering, what is a geriatric doctor’ and if you need a geriatrician? According to the American Geriatrics Society, 30% of those aged 65 or over require the aid of a geriatric physician due to the variety of temporary or chronic conditions that are often tied to aging. A geriatrician is a primary care provider that has additional training in medical care for aging patients and specializes in treating a wide range of geriatric medical issues. According to the American Medical Association, geriatricians are trained to diagnose conditions in older adults; develop care plans that address the special health care needs of older adults; communicate with families and other caregivers; be responsible for care coordination; and to take a patient-centered, holistic approach to maintaining older adults’ quality of life.”

What is a Geriatric Doctor or geriatrician?

There are currently over 3,500 practicing geriatricians or geriatric medicine specialists” across the United States that are aiding older populations with a variety of issues. With holistic care being the main goal of geriatric medicine, there are geriatric physicians that work in a wide range of care facilities and specialize in many different fields. Not to mention, geriatricians often communicate with other health care providers such as hearing specialists, physical therapists, and other providers you may bee seeing in order to collaborate and coordinate the best healthcare plan possible.

According to the American Geriatrics Society, these healthcare professionals can offer specialized care in geriatrics:

  • Doctor or Physician

  • Geriatric Nurse Practitioner

  • Physician Assistant

  • Social Worker (treats mental/​psychological ailments with individual or family counseling)

  • Occupational Therapist (aids patients with improving their motor skills, strength, dexterity, and range of motion)

Note: Since geriatricians often facilitate primary medical care on a multidisciplinary team, it is also common for a patient to visit one or more geriatricians depending on the care they need e.g. a geriatrician that specializes in hearing and a geriatrician that specializes in memory care.

Geriactric Doctor Terminology

Difference Between a Geriatric Doctor and Primary Care Doctors

While geriatric doctors specialize in treating age-related medical conditions such as the ones mentioned above, they are entirely certified to treat a wide range of ailments (similar to a general practitioner that practices family medicine or an internist that is certified in internal medicine). Geriatricians can be elected as a primary care physician for a patient, meaning they are certified to provide general care for a patient, such as yearly check-ups, preventative vaccines and medical treatments that lead to healthy aging, etc. Geriatric doctors are also sometimes referred to as senior care doctors.

The main difference between a general physician (such as those in internal or family medicine) and a geriatrician is solely based on a geriatric doctor’s specialization in senior care for older patients. Geriatricians may be able to screen their patients for a mild cognitive impairment (MCI), better understand short-term or long-term medical conditions that stem from aging such as osteoporosis, or hone in on how to preventatively treat the falling or fragility that comes with age. Another important factor that geriatrician Michele Bellantoni, M.D. mentions is that geriatric physicians often schedule longer appointments with their patients to ensure there is enough time to discuss any health issues or conditions a patient may have.

Difference Between a Geriatric Doctor and Geriatric Medicine Specialists

Some geriatric doctors or geriatricians describe themselves as geriatric medicine specialists.” However, while the terminology may change depending on the doctor, their methods and goal as a geriatric care facility remain the same.

Difference Between a Geriatrician and a Gerontologist

Unlike geriatricians, gerontologists aren’t trained medical doctors or professionals. Instead, they are researchers and practitioners that specialize in the aging process and work to provide education to the healthcare community (universities, hospitals, nursing homes, etc.) through presentations, books, and articles. While a gerontologist can help an older person by providing educational tools or resources, they do not have the same credentials as a geriatric doctor.

Common Geriatric Conditions in Older Adults

While geriatric care is holistically centered, it primarily handles conditions or syndromes that are closely linked to the aging process” of an older adult or elderly patient. The American College of Physicians found that 49.9% of adults aged 65 or over are experiencing a common geriatric condition that can be better treated by a geriatrician. Furthermore, many find that finding treatment for one medical condition negatively affects a second condition one may be dealing with. Geriatricians may be more equipped to help patients manage the treatment of multiple geriatric conditions.

These common geriatric syndromes include but are not limited to:

  • Issues with urinary incontinence or loss of bladder control.

  • Experiencing sleep disorder problems.

  • Balance-related issues that have caused or could cause falling.

  • Handling osteoporosis.

  • Processing states of delirium.

  • Having memory troubles or managing dementia.

  • Experiencing stages of weight loss or diet issues.

In addition to the higher probability of elderly patients developing a common geriatric condition, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) reports they are at higher risk of developing a chronic illness as well. The ODPHP stated that more than 60% of older adults are battling two or more chronic conditions. Geriatricians are certified to treat these chronic illnesses and handle palliative care/​palliative medicine for their patients throughout the process. 

A chronic disease or health condition could mean:

  • Handling heart disease.

  • Battling cancer.

  • Managing chronic bronchitis or emphysema.

  • Having a stroke and handling post-stroke symptoms or life changes.

  • Working through diabetes mellitus.

  • Fighting Alzheimer’s disease.

Where Geriatric Doctors Practice

Due to geriatric doctors specializing in a variety of fields, they may practice in different facilities. Not to mention, due to their clientele, it’s common for geriatricians to practice in both short-term and long-term care facilities that often include personal settings such as a patient’s home due to certain patients having limited mobility. 

According to the American Medical Association, geriatricians serve as health professionals in a variety of environments that include but are not limited to:

  • Private medical office buildings

  • Patient’s homes

  • Nursing homes

  • Hospital and/​or clinic

Note: Some healthcare providers and geriatricians are able to provide transportation to their facilities if their patients are unable to drive or need urgent care. Be sure to check the health facility’s policies on transportation assistance if this is needed or could be needed in the future.

Reasons to See a Geriatrician

Johns Hopkins’ geriatrician, Samuel C. Durso, M.D., stated that As we get older, our bodies change,” meaning that as we age, we may require different medical care. While geriatrician Michele Bellantoni, M.D. states that There’s no right age to start seeing a geriatric specialist,” there are a few indicators that seeing a geriatrician could be beneficial. These indicators include:

  • An elderly person is managing many medical conditions and operating on multiple medications. Geriatrician, Michael Steinman, states that the more drugs you’re on, the more likely you are to experience drug-drug interaction,” which can greatly affect a patient’s health.

  • Mobility is declining with a patient and/​or fragility is increasing as research shows that falls” are the leading cause of injury amongst older adults. Every year one out of three adults fall, yet less than half tell their doctor. Furthermore, falling-related injuries are treated in emergency departments every 13 seconds and claiming lives every 20 minutes, proving that keeping an eye on balance and stabilization are crucial as we age.

  • Osteoporosis, Alzheimers, dementia, or another age-related disease is affecting a patient’s well-being and requires specialized care.

  • Recent hospitalization for varying reasons as research shows that patients who receive a geriatric consult post-hospitalization are able to resume two-thirds more of their daily activities than those who didn’t.”

Geriatrician, Michael Steinman, notes that while geriatricians are recommended for adults over 65, the reason to seek out a geriatric caregiver is not solely determined by age. Steinman uses the example of, A 65-year-old with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes may benefit, but an 80-year-old who walks five miles a day and is only on one or two medications doesn’t need one.” When considering whether or not to seek geriatric care, the patient should evaluate their well-being mentally and physically in accordance with their age. Evaluating their health in this manner can assist a patient in deciding whether it’s crucial that they receive geriatric care, that it’s a precautionary measure for them as they age, or if they would rather pass due to a lack of age-induced medical conditions.

How to Choose a Geriatric Doctor

When a patient has decided to seek medical care from a geriatric doctor, there are multiple factors for them to consider in order to find the right one. Review the steps below to ensure the doctor chosen is the best fit.

Step 1:

Prior to diving into research and recommendations on which doctor is best, elderly patients may want to make a list of the qualities they’re searching for in a healthcare provider. Doing so will help the patient set a standard for the kind of healthcare plan and healthcare provider they are desiring. The patient should think through questions such as,

  • Any preference on the doctor’s gender?

  • How far is the geriatric patient willing to commute?

  • Any specific medical conditions the doctor should have experience handling?

  • If the patient speaks another language, should the practice be able to provide a translator or interpreter?

  • Is medical care necessary during evening hours or weekends?

Step 2:

A patient should be sure to check with their insurance provider prior to moving forward with a geriatrician. An older patient is likely to have a Medicare or Medicare Advantage plan so it may be in their best interest to contact their insurance provider and guarantee geriatric care is covered alongside certain services such as receiving a geriatric assessment. Furthermore, it’s important to note that visiting in-network healthcare professionals tend to require lower out-of-pocket pay while out-of-network geriatricians tend to be more expensive. Once a provider is chosen, a patient should contact their insurance provider to confirm their selection and that they are paying the lowest cost possible.

Step 3:

Dive into research on geriatricians in the area and gather recommendations from friends and family in order to seek out the best care possible. There’s an abundance of healthcare databases available to help patients narrow down their search and see their physician’s information and accolades. Try the American Medical Association’s Doctor Finder website, the list of directories from MedlinePlus, and the Medicare Physician Compare tool for patients who have Medicare insurance plans.

Step 4:

Compile a list of potential doctors and narrow them down by learning more about them and their practice. A few of the following tips may help a patient track down which doctor is their best fit:

  • Call the Geriatrician’s Office: Contacting their office is a great way to inquire more about the geriatrician’s specialties, interact with the office staff, and gauge if the geriatric doctor is open to new patients.

  • Ensure the Geriatrician is Board Certified: Doctors who are board-certified were medical students that completed additional training after medical school in order to pass an exam and complete specified clinical training that qualifies them as a specialist. Lookup a potential doctor and see if they’re board certified by visiting this source.

  • Research Patient Forums: Browse patient reviews and forums to see what others are saying about this practice and doctor. This is a great insight into how other patients are being treated and what their quality of care may look like.

Step 5:

After narrowing down their search, the patient should select the doctor they feel most comfortable with and set up an initial consultation with them. There’s no better way to get to know a doctor and their practice than going there and experiencing it firsthand. When visiting with the doctor, ask the physician questions that point towards their quality of care such as:

  • Why did they choose to become a geriatrician?

  • Does the patient care team have a code of ethics they must abide by?

  • What are their personal goals as a geriatrician?

  • Have they worked with patients who suffer similar ailments and issues?

At the end of the day, it comes down to how the patient feels with the doctor and the practice as a whole. Be patient and take all the steps necessary to find the best fit possible.

Geriatric Care and Insurance Coverage

The time for seeking geriatric assistance and joining a Medicare health insurance plan often overlap as they are both recommended for those aged 65 or older. Medicare or Medicare Advantage plans provide health insurance for Americans aged 65 or older who have been paying Medicare taxes for at least ten years of their working life. When considering a Medicare plan, one learns that there are four parts it can cover: Part A (inpatient/​outpatient coverage), Part B (outpatient/​medical coverage), Part C (an alternate way to receive benefits), and Part D (prescription medication coverage). Original Medicare plans offer to cover Part A and Part B while allowing the option to add Part D for an extra cost. Meanwhile, Medicare Advantage plans are often viewed as an all in one” bundle as they cover Part A, B, and D, along with vision, dental, hearing, and more with lower costs. While most Medicare plans require electing a primary care doctor, which can be a geriatrician, it’s important for a patient to check with their insurance provider to see which services are covered or if there are extra costs involved with services such as having a comprehensive geriatric assessment.

What is a Geriatric Doctor

This infographic breaks down what a geriatric doctor is and who they care for.

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