What’s the difference between a geriatrician and a primary care physician? I finally have a clear definition. I care about the definition because I know someone who should switch to a geriatrician but I could not convey why it is important before this week
I am in the middle of a good book titled Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Mr. Gawande explains the difference between a gerontological approach to care vs. a standard medical approach. Primary care physicians, or family doctors, are trained to treat disease. They look at the aging body and try to fix it and treat its diseases and maladies as they do for any age of body. The prescriptions or remedies might defeat the enemy of disease might but at the potential cost of reducing the elder person’s functions and capabilities. The geriatrician, however, looks at the aging person’s lifestyle and level of independence, and tries to preserve or improve the quality of the aging person’s life while trying to manage the symptoms of medical problems. The geriatrician does not hope to eliminate the high blood pressure, diabetes, or arthritis, or necessarily even strive to bring the levels and numbers of the associated tests to normal. The geriatrician looks to manage the illness and its accompanying symptoms. But a big focus is on the potential for falls, extreme weight loss, dehydration, and other factors that can derail life as the aging person enjoys it now.
According to Mr. Gawande, studies have shown that people who retain geriatricians are often able to postpone moving into a nursing home or avoid serious falls by up to a year. Imagine being able to extend your loved one’s quality of life by another year. Imagine being able to have less stress in your life for a year because you aren’t dealing with the aftermath of a loved one’s crisis and relocation.
Geriatricians might be difficult to find in your area or they might not be accepting new patients. There are not enough geriatricians to meet the needs of the growing aging population (another blog post) but if you can find one for your loved one it will be worth your efforts and theirs.