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No one would ever question a new mother's decision to carefully select a pediatrician for her infant. So, why should a geriatrician be any less important? People at all stages of their lives need special care and treatment that caters specifically to their age group. A geriatrician is a physician who specializes in the examination, diagnosis and treatment of older adults and the problems specific to the aging process.

As our population continues to age and the baby boomer generation begins to creep into their elder years, the need for geriatricians will skyrocket. Most geriatricians are drawn to field due to a love and respect for elders. It can be a very emotional area of medicine to practice since most patients are getting closer to the end of their lives, and are continually developing new problems. Also, those who slowly lose their mental faculties to diseases like dementia and Alzheimer's, slowly forget who their doctors even are.

Geriatricians focus both on diagnosis and treatment, and the entire person in the aging process. They seek to improve a patient's overall quality of life and level of function rather than seeking definitive cures. Geriatricians are experts in caring for specific health problems seen most often in older people, such as incontinence, dementia, depression, Alzheimer's, loss of hearing, falls, osteoporosis and other age-related conditions. They are also sensitive to and understand how medications and dosages may be different for the older patient.

Geriatric medicine promotes wellness and preventive care with an emphasis on care management that helps patients maintain their independence. They tend to have an interdisciplinary approach to medicine and work with a coordinated team of nurses, geriatric psychiatrists, physician assistants, pharmacists and other health care professionals.

Some geriatricians focus on trying to get patients off so many medications. However, by the time most patients see a specialized geriatrician, they could already easily be on 10 to 20 different medications, all interacting with each other. Geriatricians order laboratory tests, x-rays and other diagnostic procedures and prescribe medication and treatment or refer patients for surgery if necessary.

The geriatrician's role is rapidly expanding as a result of the growth of the elderly population. Many people do not think they are old enough to see a geriatrician. However, experts say if one shows any of the following signs, to consult with a geriatrics doctor: a decline in function, either activities of daily living or instrumental activities such cooking food, memory-loss problems, a suspicion of dementia, depression complicating medical illnesses or an interest in healthy aging.
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  Interests and Skills  
Geriatricians are interested in helping older people, first and foremost. Key characteristics are patience and compassion. Patience is necessary because older adults move more slowly, and they carry around a patient history spanning 80 years or so that must be carefully traversed in the interview. Also, geriatric medicine requires time to build trust with your patients to the point where they feel comfortable talking to you about sensitive issues, such as some of the psychological problems they may be having.

Geriatricians have the intellectual ability required to successfully complete the academic training and to pursue a course of lifelong learning and the stamina required to work long hours. They will need emotional strength and maturity, and passion, empathy and energy. Also, ethics is a strong point for these types of people because they have to do what is right for their patients with their best interests in mind.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Examine patients, order laboratory tests, x-rays and other diagnostic procedures and consult with other medical practitioners to evaluate patients' health
  • Prescribe and administer appropriate medications and treatments, which may involve giving simple advice and coordinating more complex treatment or rehabilitation programs
  • Inoculate and vaccinate patients
  • Advise patients on health care and counsel patients on diet, hygiene and preventative health care and discuss treatment methods
  • Coordinate their work with nurses, social workers, rehabilitation therapists, pharmacists, psychologists and other health care providers
  • Teach medical students and other health professionals
  • Geriatricians' working conditions depend on the type of position. Yet most geriatricians work long days, about 60 hours per week. They may work rotating shifts or be on call. When on call, they can be called into the hospital at any time, day or night. In a typical day, most geriatricians see a succession of patients, and may spend a considerable amount of time driving to hospitals, clinics and/or patients' homes. This occupation can be both emotionally demanding and emotionally rewarding.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Geriatricians work in a wide variety of settings - research, long-term care facilities, nursing homes, community center outreach programs, public health units, hospitals and private practices.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Geriatricians can move around the geriatrics field and perform other related jobs in social work, community work, health services, social program development and seniors recreation. Geriatricians would be suited to any one of these. They may also go into teaching and training and lead students during their residencies.

  Educational Paths  
Becoming a geriatrician requires a long educational road, so be prepared for a lifelong learning experience. Most start with a Bachelor of Science degree, however some Bachelor of Arts graduates may be accepted into medical school programs. While in high school, take math and science classes. Also, not all medical schools require a bachelor's degree and with good marks, some students can get accepted after two years of undergraduate study. Check with the school for their requirements before applying.

The next step is medical school, which usually takes about four years. Graduation from an approved medical school will result in the title Medical Doctor (MD). A one- to two-year internship in internal or family medicine residency training are required after graduation from medical school followed by an additional two years of training in the medical, social and psychological aspects of aging. Completion of the qualifying licensing examinations is required to practice medicine. Licensure by the regional licensing authority is required.

Finally, before entering medical school, volunteer in a hospital, nursing home or community center. This will give you valuable experience in dealing with people who need help and what it is like to work as a doctor.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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