Aging is an intricate process. Complex changes occur in both the body and the brain. In order to recognize and best care for elderly patients, physicians should become experts in the processes and effects of getting older. In the medical community, these individuals are referred to as Geriatric Physicians.
What is a Geriatric Physician
Geriatric Physicians are medical doctors who focus on the evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of the elderly, and the conditions that most often affect them. They hold either an M.D., (Doctor of Medicine) or a D.O., (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine).
Their primary role is to diagnose and treat diseases affecting the elderly, and also frequently work to improve the standard of living during the natural progression of aging.
Geriatric Physicians become experts in long-term illnesses affecting the elderly, such as Alzheimer’s, arthritis, dementia, and heart disease. They also become highly knowledgeable in the most common complaints/results of the aging process, including incontinence, reduced memory, physical weakness, infection, and immobility.
Additionally, they must be educated in, and consider the psychological effects of aging. According to the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, the effects of aging often include grief over the loss of a long-time spouse or loved one(s), personal fear of death or sickness, coping with chronic or disease-related pain, feelings of isolation, and anxiety.
Geriatric Physicians should also learn about end-of-life legal issues, such as wills, power of attorney, etc., and they must carefully work with other physicians as much as possible so medications are regulated, medications are not over-prescribed, and combinations of many medications do not cause harmful reactions in patients.
Understanding the Educational Path to Become a Geriatric Physician
A medical doctorate degree and internal medicine residency (ideally on a geriatric track), and a geriatric fellowship are the primary educational requirements for a board-certified Geriatric Physician. However, the educational path begins by receiving a Bachelor's Degree from an accredited college or university.
Strong interpersonal skills, a psychological and sociological understanding of issues relating to the elderly, and high level competencies in math and science are also essential for becoming a Geriatric Physician. While in college, this core skill set is often the focus of an aspiring geriatric physician.
Educational Path of a Geriatric Physician
Earn a bachelor's degree.
A bachelor’s degree is the first higher-education step toward becoming a Geriatric Physician. Although Geriatric Physicians complete a broad range of undergraduate courses, students should also complete the courses outlined by the American Association of Medical Colleges, which most medical schools require as prerequisites. These courses include: biology, physics, and chemistry, along with written and oral communication course study.
During their undergraduate degree, students with a desire to gain an edge in the competitive medical school application pool, would benefit from taking career and advanced education-oriented steps, such as joining pre-med organizations, completing community service at health care centers, shadowing physicians in the their chosen field of study, and studying for the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test). Before graduating, a candidate should apply to medical school, preferably with a focus in their chosen field. Medical school requires a four-year commitment, leading to an advanced degree in the medical field, and either a M.D. or D.O.
Complete a medical school program
During medical school, future geriatric physicians spend their first year primarily in the classroom absorbing knowledge and taking courses in the areas of anatomy, histology, pathology, biochemistry, psychology, and ethics; all of which prepare a student for Objective Structured Clinical Exams. A student’s second year, while still in the classroom, is more clinically focused. Third and fourth year students move into clinical rotations where they are exposed to the care and treatment of the elderly, as well as a wide range of potential specializations, including psychiatry.
Complete a Residency
Following medical school, graduates would be wise to complete their four-year residency in a geriatric specialty. Since Geriatrics is generally categorized within the scope of internal medicine, future doctors should apply for internal medicine residencies with Geriatric tracks.
Secure a license. Licensing requirements vary by state, and doctors must sit for a state exam in each state they plan to practice medicine. It is considered vital to complete one’s residency in the state of intended practice. Otherwise, physicians will need to pass a different set of regulations before taking the test in whichever state they choose to practice.
Become board certified. In order to become board certified, medical doctors must meet all of the following requirements:
Complete a Fellowship in Geriatrics Medicine
A one-year, post-residency fellowship in the subspecialty of Geriatric Medicine is critical for doctors desiring to enter the field. When searching for a fellowship, physicians should ensure the program they are pursuing is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, and will both qualify and prepare them to sit for the subspecialty examination. Although fellowships differ depending upon which school is chosen by an aspiring physician, the core curriculum is much the same. Strong fellowships will include exposure to, and provide experience in, long-term care and rehab, acute hospital care, outpatient primary care, assessment, palliative care, and home care (Duke University School of Medicine 2015).
Physicians who successfully complete a fellowship and hold a board certification in internal medicine are eligible to sit for the Geriatrics subspecialty exam.
Understanding the Career Path of Becoming a Geriatric Physician
Geriatric Physicians have the opportunity to practice in a variety of workplace settings, including, but not limited to, group and private practices, nursing homes, assisted living centers, veteran hospitals, and both short and long term inpatient facilities.
Some Geriatric Physicians will elect to pursue additional specialties to become geriatric rheumatologists or geriatric nephrologists. Geriatric Physicians may also teach, present diagnostic research at conferences, author books that provide insight into their work as physicians, and/or serve as evaluators for professional societies and boards.
Geriatric Physicians should consider joining the Gerontological Society of America, and/or the American Geriatrics Society, also known as the American Geriatrics Association. Professional organizations can be used as a means for networking, community service, think tanks, research, continued education, and specialized learning.
According to the American Medical Group Association, the median income for a practicing Geriatric Physician is $187,600.
As the Baby Boomer population ages, the number of individuals older than 65 is expected to double in the next 20 years. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 70-million Americans will be considered elderly by 2030. Nonetheless, recent articles published by LiveScience and the New York Times note that the gap between positions available and positions filled is widening. Naturally, as the population continues to age, demand for Geriatric Physicians will increase exponentially.