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Understanding the Difference: Geriatrics, Geriatricians & Gerontologists

Understanding the Difference: Geriatrics, Geriatricians & Gerontologists

Geriatrics is a multidisciplinary field of health care that focuses on the medical, functional, and psychosocial health of older people and their caregivers.

Geriatrics is practiced by many types of health professionals, including physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, social workers, rehabilitation therapists, pharmacists, dentists, as well as others.

A “geriatrician” is a physician who practices geriatrics. Although many physicians say they are “geriatricians” because they care for a lot of older people; true geriatricians are board certified by either the American Board of Internal Medicine or the American Board of Family Practice.

To become board certified, a physician must successfully complete 3 years of residency training in either Internal Medicine or Family Practice, and a one-year approved Fellowship in Geriatric Medicine (some physicians became board certified without taking a Fellowship when the specialty was introduced in the 1990s, but this is no longer available).

In contrast to a geriatrician, a “gerontologist” is an individual who studies aging regardless of his or her field. Gerontologists may be economists, biologists, psychologists, architects, lawyers, ethicist, as well as professionals from many other disciplines.

Among the more than 650,000 physicians in the U.S., fewer than 9,000 are certified in geriatric medicine. Various approaches to increase the number of geriatricians are being pursued. These range from loan re-payment programs to lobbying for better Medicare reimbursement for the medical care and care coordination of frail elderly people with multiple complex medical problems.