Reaching retirement age means a number of life changes for most people. They may stop working, start collecting Social Security benefits and begin Medicare coverage. Should finding a new doctor who specializes in senior health care be one of those changes?
"An 18-year-old isn't going to have the same health concerns as a 65-year-old," says Michelle Riddle, owner of Complete Dignity Healthcare Advocacy. However, Riddle and others working in the health care field say making a switch may not always be necessary.
Geriatricians are in short supply. Geriatricians are the doctors who specialize in treating older individuals. "There are specific impairments that commonly occur in the elderly: immobility, instability, incontinence, dementia, hearing loss and loss of vision," says Robert Drapkin, a medical doctor and fellow of the American College of Physicians. "All these impairments lead to loss of independence, and once they begin occurring, the help of a geriatrician is advised."
Unfortunately, finding a geriatrician in much of the country can be difficult. The American Geriatric Society reports there is a significant shortfall of professionals working in the field. The number of geriatricians is especially low in rural states such as Wyoming where only eight of these specialists served the entire state in 2014. Other states may have more of these doctors, but they still fall short of the number needed to serve the senior population. For example, Florida had 423 geriatricians practicing in 2014, far short of the 1,772 the American Geriatric Society estimates are needed.
For those who can find a geriatrician in their area, they may get a provider who specializes in senior care and access to an entire team of similar professionals. "Another advantage of working with a doctor who specializes in elder care is that they often have other geriatric specialists in their practice," says Jennifer FitzPatrick, author of "Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring for Your Loved One." "This can offer a multidisciplinary approach to the complex needs of an older patient."
Specialist care may not be needed. While geriatricians may be in short supply, that doesn't mean seniors won't be able to access the care they need. Seth Marquit, medical director for Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa, says any good physician should be able to adequately meet the needs of adult patients of any age. "Those needs should already be understood by most doctors," he says of the medical care required by seniors.
That means seniors who are happy with their current level of care shouldn't feel compelled to change doctors simply because they turn age 65. In fact, it could be counterproductive to move to a physician who has no personal knowledge of a patient's medical history. "I believe the best physician for an elderly patient is a physician well-trained in internal medicine who has known and followed this patient for many years," Drapkin says.
When Medicare requires a change in doctors. Even if someone doesn't want to change their doctor because of their age, they may have to because of their health insurance. At age 65, seniors become eligible for Medicare, which could require a change in their health care providers.
Most primary care physicians -- 93 percent according to the Kaiser Family Foundation -- accept Medicare. However, seniors who select a Medicare Advantage plan through a private insurer may be required to see a provider who participates with the plan. That may require people to switch doctors if they want their care to be covered.
Finding the right physician. Riddle says many seniors have a personal, not just a professional, relationship with their physician. "It's not just their doctor. It's their friend," she says. As a result, switching doctors -- either by choice or out of necessity -- can be a stressful situation. "It feels like a betrayal," Riddle says.
To help ease the process, patient advocates can assist with notifying the existing physician as well as helping seniors find a new doctor who is a good fit for their needs. "Since older adults tend to see their doctors more frequently than younger persons, being comfortable is absolutely essential," FitzPatrick says.
When shopping for a new doctor, seniors should remember age is just a number. "I see 50-year-olds who need to be put into institutions and 80-year-olds who are smart as tacks," Marquit says.
While a geriatrician may be the right fit for some seniors, a more important consideration is to find a physician who will spend time getting to know a patient's needs and treat each individual as a partner in their care.