Geriatrician: Your Senior Care Specialist

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is a geriatrician?

A geriatrician specializes in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of health conditions in older seniors and the elderly. Geriatric specialists typically treat adults older than 65 who have multiple chronic conditions, such as diabetes and thyroid disease, or serious injuries, such as hip fracture. They also provide regular, routine primary care for older adults. Geriatricians work in hospitals, private medical clinics, community health clinics, long-term care facilities, and assisted living facilities.

A geriatric doctor typically:

  • Evaluates a patient’s medical history and teaches the patient about wellness and disease prevention

  • Diagnoses and treats acute diseases and conditions including infections and injuries

  • Screens, treats and monitors a range of chronic physical conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, thyroid disease, and heart disease

  • Screens, treats and monitors a range of mental and emotional conditions, such as dementia, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse

  • Assesses a person’s ability to perform everyday living activities, such as eating, dressing and driving

  • Orders and interprets laboratory and imaging tests and prescribes medications

  • Consults with other members of a patient’s medical and surgical team

  • Provides cancer screenings, such as skin, breast, prostate and thyroid exams

A geriatrician may also be known as senior care doctor.

Who should see a geriatrician?

If you are an adult older than 65 and you do not currently see a family medicine doctor or an internist who provides routine primary care services, consider seeing a geriatrician. You may especially benefit from the care of a geriatric specialist if you have undiagnosed symptoms, memory loss, multiple chronic diseases that you need help managing, or if you feel daily activities are getting more difficult to carry out.

See a geriatrician if you care for an older adult who meets the above criteria, or you are concerned about the level of specialty care he or she is receiving. These doctors are experts in the special needs of older adults and the elderly. They can work with you and the primary care doctor to design a care plan and improve the person’s health and quality of life.

When should you see a geriatrician?

You should see a geriatrician once a year for a general health exam to monitor such health characteristics as your weight, cholesterol, and lifestyle-related habits, such as smoking and exercise. Consider seeking care from a geriatric specialist if you (or a loved one) develop any of the following symptoms or conditions: 

  • Abnormal weight gain or loss

  • Chronic or acute pain

  • Decreased ability to perform daily tasks, such as preparing food, bathing, dressing, and driving

  • Digestive problems, such as blood in your stool, vomiting, or diarrhea or constipation that last for more than a few days

  • Headaches that occur frequently and are accompanied by other symptoms, such as fever and coughing

  • High fever (higher than 103 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Increased feelings of forgetfulness, frailness, or a feeling of being overwhelmed in managing your current medical conditions

  • Mild wheezing or shortness of breath—seek immediate emergency care (call 911) for moderate to severe shortness of breath

  • Minor injuries that you cannot treat at home with bandages and antiseptic cream

  • Unusual anxiety, stress, sadness, or other emotional difficulties

Other situations that warrant a consult with a geriatrician include:

  • You are the caregiver of an older adult who has multiple chronic diseases or mental disabilities that are difficult to manage.

  • You are feeling overwhelmed as a caregiver of an older adult.

If you need a senior care doctor or help making decisions about your health, find an experienced geriatrician in your area.

What does a geriatrician treat?

A geriatrician treats conditions and diseases that involve the physical, emotional and mental health of older seniors and the elderly including:

  • Chronic diseases and conditions including high blood pressure, osteoporosis, arthritis, and diabetes

  • Common health concerns including falls, memory loss, urinary incontinence, and side effects caused by taking several medications

  • Infections including influenza and pneumonia

  • Injuries including small lacerations as well as minor bone, muscle and joint injuries (sprains, strains and fractures)

  • Mental conditions and disorders including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder

  • Sexual health including infections and sexual dysfunction

  • Skin problems including minor burns, infections and rashes

  • Weight problems including obesity and malnutrition

What does a geriatrician test?

A geriatrician can order or perform the following diagnostic and screening tests for chronic and acute health issues:

  • Activities of daily living (ADLs) assessment including the ability of the patient to eat, bathe, dress and drive. This assessment may involve the patient’s spouse, children, or other caregiver.

  • Cancer screening including breast exam, mammogram, Pap smear, rectal exam, and fecal occult blood test

  • Elder abuse screening including evaluations for physical, sexual and mental abuse

  • Exploratory diagnostic exams including endoscopy or sigmoidoscopy to visualize internal organs

  • General health tests including body temperature, blood oxygen level (pulse oximetry), and blood pressure

  • Imaging tests including X-rays, bone density tests, CT (computed tomography) scans, and ultrasounds to check for blockages, structural abnormalities, infection, and cancer

  • Laboratory tests including complete blood count (CBC), urinalysis, blood glucose (sugar) test, liver function tests, cholesterol panel, and thyroid hormone tests

  • Mental health screening for dementia, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bipolar disorder

  • Reproductive health tests including pelvic exam and sexually transmitted disease (STD) tests

  • Vision and hearing screening tests

    to determine vision acuity and hearing level

What procedures and treatments does a geriatrician do?

Geriatricians order or perform various procedures and treatments to manage an array of health conditions. They often provide referrals to surgeons and other specialists to diagnose and treat conditions that they do not have experience in treating themselves. Common procedures and treatments include:  

  • Chronic disease management including medication and counseling for diabetes, hypertension, and thyroid disease

  • General health procedures including physical examination and immunization

  • Healthy lifestyle counseling including eating habits, exercise, and smoking

  • Injury-related procedures including immobilizing sprains or broken bones

  • Medication administration including intravenous fluid for dehydration and breathing treatments for asthma and emphysema

  • Mental health and behavioral treatment including counseling for bipolar disorder, depression, and eating disorders

  • Minor procedures including removal of foreign objects such as splinters, wart removal, stitches, and stitch or staple removal

  • Nutrition and weight counseling including ways to maintain normal weight and to avoid becoming malnourished, overweight or obese

Geriatrician training and certification?

Choose a geriatrician who is board certified in geriatric medicine—a subspecialty of internal medicine and family medicine. Many physicians provide excellent medical care for elderly patients without becoming board certified in geriatric medicine. However, certification shows that a doctor has advanced training and expertise in geriatric medical care.

Board-certified geriatricians have an extensive education and training pathway. Prior board certification in internal medicine or family medicine is required to apply for board certification in geriatric medicine. The doctor must complete specialty training and pass an exam validating the doctor’s additional knowledge and skills in geriatric care.

To maintain board certification, a doctor must participate in a U.S. certifying board’s ongoing certification program.

Other search tips

If you have a certain condition or disease, it may be helpful to find a geriatrician who has experience and success treating it. For example, if you or a loved one has symptoms of dementia, you can ask the doctor or the doctor’s office how many patients with dementia they have treated and how the patients responded to treatment. In addition, the doctor’s appointment availability and online patient ratings and reviews may help you choose a provider.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jan 23
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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