Dear S.K.: Your experience is not all that unusual. Millions of older Americans face grater risks of misdiagnosis, misuse of prescription drugs and other medical problems because only about 9,000 doctors -- less than 2 percent of the 650,000 physicians nationwide specialize in geriatric medicine: That according to a recent report by the Alliance for Aging Research, a non-profit advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
At least 20,000 geriatricians are needed to care for the nations 35 million older people. For some older patients, being cared for by doctors and others with little or no experience in the field of aging can have dangerous -- even deadly -- consequences. For example older people metabolize certain drugs differently than younger people and may face potentially hazardous interactions from drugs prescribed by different practitioners.
As medical specialities go, geriatrics is still relatively young. For many decades geriatrics was medicines forgotten discipline. Experts point to two factors: money and prestige. Medicare reimbursement rates dont take into account the extra time that doctors spend with older patients. Geriatrics isnt glamorous or glitzy. Because its far less lucrative than other specialities -- cardiology for example -- fewer students are attracted to the field. Only 12 medical schools in the U.S. require their students to take courses in geriatrics.
Most doctors admit that older patients can at times be more difficult to deal with. Others blame a society-wide denial of aging. But without physicians or specialists educated in the field, the needs of older patients -- particularly those with complicated or multiple conditions -- may go unmet.
Help is overdue. Members of Congress have introduced legislation that would offer various incentives, such as loan forgiveness and continuing education funds, that are designed to encourage medical students to specialize in the field of aging.
To find a doctor experienced or trained in elderly care, call your local medical society referral line and ask for an internist experienced in the field of aging or call the American Geriatrics Society toll free at (866) 788-3939.
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