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Geriatricians Question Shortage of Physicians in Their Field

The oldest baby boomers are about 10 years from the age when they will likely require additional medical attention. Some worry that the surge in numbers of people needing care could overwhelm the U.S. health care system which is already facing a few problems.

Geriatricians are doctors who specialize in the elderly. They are few in number, and the field is not attractive to medical students. Is this a cause for concern? Maybe. Maybe not.

To determine whether the future supply of doctors in Ohio will meet the projected demand, state policy makers commissioned a study by the research arm of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Dr. Robert Phillips directs the center that conducted the study. He says it found Ohio's supply of doctors to be healthy - with one big exception - geriatricians

Phillips says, while Ohio's population growth is shrinking, its older population is growing. He sees a current shortage "that's just going to get worse."

Two leading experts in geriatric medicine in Columbus take issue with the term shortage, saying it depends on the role of the geriatrician. Is he or she a patient's primary care physician or is the role more like that of a specialist?

Dr. Marian Schuda is medical director of Riverside Hospital's Gerlach Center for Senior Health. She says few geriatricians have their own practice. Most are associated with medical centers.

Dr. Robert Murden is a professor and physician in Internal Medicine at Ohio State. He says there will never be enough geriatricians to see all older people. He adds, not every older person needs a geriatrician

Medical schools offer and in some cases require coursework in geriatric medicine for all students to make them aware that treating the elderly is not always the same as treating a younger adult

Fourth year medical student at OSU Eniolami Dosunmu has chosen the field of ophthalmology. She tells WOSU's Judith Brachman, many of her patients will be older people, so she took additional coursework in geriatrics to prepare for the types of illnesses faced most often by seniors

Another fourth year medical student, Andrea Hahn, thought she was preparing to become a geriatrician. Then, she changed her mind and decided to go into pediatrics.

Dr. Murden says there are many reasons why medical students are not going into geriatric medicine including low pay and a lack of role models.

The geriatrics fellowship Murden directs at at OSU has room for one physician per year. Murden says even though most other geriatric fellowships in the U-S offer also only one opening per year, there are usually more openings than physicians interested in filling them.

So it appears that the field of geriatrics will continue to have few takers. And medical schools will try to make up the difference by adding courses in geriatrics. Fortunately, older people are staying healthier longer.