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Shortage of Geriatricians Drives Change in Their Role

In little more than a decade, the aging Baby Boomers are expected to produce a surge in numbers of people needing medical care. Geriatricians are doctors who specialize in the elderly. These doctors are few in number, and the field is not attracting many medical students or young physicians. But fears of a shortage of geriatricians might be premature.

Eniolami Dosunmu is a fourth year medical student at Ohio State University. Her field is 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 often faced by seniors.

"The more important ones that the older population faces are high blood pressure, diabetes, glaucoma just to name a few," says Dosunmu.

Another fourth year medical student, Andrea Hahn was preparing to become a geriatrician. Then, she decided on what in her view is another family-oriented specialty - pediatrics.

One of Hahn's professors, Dr. Robert Murden, says there are several reasons why young physicians avoid the field of geriatric medicine including a lack of role models and low pay.

Murden directs Ohio State's geriatrics fellowship. He points out that geriatrics requires less training than other specialties. A geriatrician trains for one or more years in geriatrics after finishing a residency in internal medicine or family medicine. In contrast, a cardiologist trains for three or more years in cardiology after finishing a residency in internal medicine.

The American Geriatrics Society says, during the past academic year, nearly one-half of all geriatric training slots, all fellowship positions in the U.S., were empty - no physicians were interested. The AGS claims the aging boomers will not get the medical care they need if the U-S fails to produce more geriatricians.

Doctor Murden and another expert in the field of geriatric medicine take issue with that view.

Dr. Marian Schuda is the Director of Riverside Hospital's Gerlach Center for Senior Health. She says, "depending on how the geriatrician is used, we could be alright." Schuda says everyone who completes a residency in internal medicine or family practice will have specific training in geriatrics, making it possible for geriatricians to serve as consultants rather than primary care physicians.

Dr. Murden says, there will never be enough geriatricians to see all older people, but not all older people need a geriatrician.

As Eniolami Dosunmu prepares to leave the Ohio State Medical School to continue her training in ophthalmology, she leaves a message for everyone in medicine:

"We do need to take care of our elderly people. They give us so much wisdom and so much love."