Growing Old; Gerontology Is Strained by Shortage of Physicians

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 13, 2007 | Go to article overview

Growing Old; Gerontology Is Strained by Shortage of Physicians


Byline: Jen Waters, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Margaret Pergler goes to the doctor more than most people. At age 93, she has had three hip replacements, a knee replacement, two disks replaced in her cervical spine, four surgeries on her hands because of arthritis, cataract surgery and treatment for uterine cancer.

The Alexandria woman is thankful that she has found one doctor to coordinate her many health needs - a geriatrician. Otherwise, she says, her life would be more complicated than it already is.

"I accepted the fact that I was getting too old for a lot of things," Ms. Pergler says. "I still get around when I want to. I enjoy my time. I do really. I read a lot. I do some things around the house still. I cook. I can't say I clean a lot anymore. I have a good life."

Geriatricians are experts at managing the multiple problems and medications of the elderly. However, because of a shortage of the specialists, the American Geriatric Society says it is estimated that by 2030 there will be only one geriatrician for every 7,665 older adults.

Elderly patients have different needs than other patients, says Dr. Beal Lowen, an internist and geriatrician who has a private practice at Mount Vernon Internal Medicine south of Alexandria and in Lorton. He also is an attending physician at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital.

"The treatments are often less aggressive," Dr. Lowen says. "The goals are different. The patients' perceptions of their lives come very much into play. People who have lived a long time have a different perception of mortality."

Many times, the elderly fear illness more than death, Dr. Lowen says. Further, an older person metabolizes medicine differently than middle-aged people.

"Just as you would handle medications in a pediatric practice, in a geriatric practice, your pharmacology changes," he says.

Geriatric doctors have expertise in the process of aging, common conditions of older adults, how the health care system serves older adults' needs, the transition of care across care sites, and working with a multidisciplinary team, says Dr. Samuel Durso, clinical director of geriatric medicine and gerontology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Further, about 50 percent of patients older than 65 have three or more conditions, he says. Prioritizing those conditions is an important part of balancing care of the elderly. The person shouldn't have more medications than is helpful. Preservation of independence and function is also something to consider.

"You try to understand what is foremost in the patient's mind about what is important to them," Dr. Durso says. "This should be true to all patients, particularly true as patients enter the last phases of adulthood."

Treating pain, reducing the burdens of medications, longevity, and being close to family and friends are among the considerations of the elderly, he says.

Once a patient with an irregular heartbeat requested not to take an anticoagulant because it can cause bleeding. Because she didn't take the anticoagulant, she had a higher risk of stroke, he says. Eventually, she did have a small stroke, but she still didn't want to take the medication.

"These kinds of decisions are common," Dr. Durso says. "Sometimes things like guidelines are not foremost in a patient's value system. Geriatricians are accustomed to it because patients have many competing preferences besides the outcome of a disease."

Because the number of geriatricians is insufficient for the population and only getting worse, care for older Americans should be a significant point of reformation in the health care system, he says. …

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