Types of Doctors and What They Do

Caregiving.com

Types of Doctors and What They Do

Caregiving.com

The moment you become a family caregiver, one of the top concerns about your loved one’s needs is likely their medical care. Many people visit their family doctor through all stages of life and are most familiar with this type of doctor. Throughout your caregiving journey, you may encounter a wide variety of doctors you never knew existed who play a pivotal role in your loved one’s care. Here we list the most common types of doctors that caregivers should know about. 

Geriatric Doctors

Some family caregivers may be surprised to learn that there are doctors who specialize in treating older adults--they are called geriatricians. If your loved one is 65 years or older and has become frail, disabled, or has multiple health issues and needs an expert in complex care and medication, it may be time to see a geriatrician. The goal of a geriatric doctor is to help aging adults remain as functional as possible and improve the quality of their life. Older adults often take multiple medications. Geriatric doctors are extremely knowledgeable about medications commonly prescribed to older adults and take time to educate caregivers and those that they care for on how these medications affect older bodies. Some of the conditions that geriatricians treat are cardiovascular disease, dementia, fall injuries, vertigo, and osteoporosis. They can also help with injury prevention by addressing environmental hazards in the home. 

Hospice Doctors

Arguably one of the most unknown types of doctors involved with senior care is the hospice doctor. They are a member of and oversee the hospice care team, which typically consists of social workers, nurses, chaplains, home health aides, volunteers, and counselors. While most doctors are concerned about improving health, a hospice doctor’s concern is improving patients’ quality of life and comfort. Their role is not to “cure” the patient, as hospice care is a type of healthcare service that opts out of curative treatment and, instead, focuses on comfort care. It involves pain and symptom management for those living with a life-limiting illness. Their job is to identify what your loved one’s needs are for end-of-life care and learn what is important to them and your family during this time. The hospice doctor can help with making a referral for any specific comfort care needs your loved one has, including occupational therapy or pet therapy.

Neurologists

A doctor who specializes in the treatment and diagnosis of disorders with the brain and nervous system is known as a neurologist. Some of those disorders include Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis to list a few. A common misconception is that neurologists can perform brain or spinal cord surgery, when that is in fact the job of a neurosurgeon; both of these doctors often work closely together. A neurologist will perform a series of tests on their patients to evaluate their condition, including CAT scans, MRIs, or NCS/EMGs. Your loved one may want to see a neurologist if they are experiencing chronic or severe headaches, confusion, memory loss, dizziness, seizures, numbness or tingling, or movement problems.

Oncologists

Oncology is defined as the study of cancer. An oncologist treats patients diagnosed with cancer. Oncologists are included in a multidisciplinary team to help with cancer treatment, which often includes surgeons, radiation therapists, and chemotherapists. They are usually the main point of contact for the treatment plan of someone with cancer. The family doctor often refers patients to see an oncologist if there’s an unusual growth or lump, unusual bleeding, a sore that won’t heal, or changes in bowel movements. There are sub-specialists in oncology for specific cancer treatments, such as gynecologic oncologists, pediatric oncologists, hematologist-oncologists, and more. If you are caring for someone living with cancer, you may be in frequent contact with an oncologist. Your loved one, along with your support, may opt into curative procedures when they want to improve their chance of surviving their cancer and add more years to their life. When curative treatments aren’t likely to improve health outcomes or their risks outweigh the benefits, an oncologist may refer your loved one to palliative care or hospice.

Palliative Care Doctors

The role of palliative care doctors is very similar to hospice doctors, but there are important differences to know. While both doctors focus on comfort care, the palliative care doctor can also offer a curative treatment plan alongside comfort care for patients at any stage of their life, whereas a hospice doctor exclusively provides a comfort care plan for patients with a prognosis of six months or less of life. 

Care needs can be ever-changing with a patient accessing palliative care. The doctor, as well as their interdisciplinary team, will work closely with you and your loved one to ensure the care that’s being provided still meets your loved one’s needs and goals. Receiving palliative care does not mean your loved one has to be near the end of life. It is possible for some patients to receive palliative care for a short time to improve their condition. While hospice and palliative care do not hasten death, the expectation is that patients’ health conditions will not improve and the focus remains on keeping the patient comfortable.

Pediatricians

As there are doctors who specialize in the care of older adults, a pediatrician is trained specifically for the care of children from birth to adolescence. A general pediatrician treats common conditions during childhood, such as ear infections or rhinovirus, and also helps children achieve major milestones expected in their growth and development. If your child has a chronic illness or disability, there are specialized pediatricians who can help. Some of the more common specialists are pediatric cardiologists, who treat complex heart conditions; pediatric oncologists, who treat childhood cancers; and pediatric pulmonologists, who treat issues related to the respiratory system. When the child’s conditions are life-limiting, there are options for treatment with pediatric hospice and palliative care.

A Doctor For Your Care

Whether you are caring for someone or you are seeking care for yourself, you may at some point in time encounter one or more of these types of physicians. Some of your caregiving responsibilities may include contacting area physicians or specialists to coordinate and manage care, so it’s important to know which one you need. There are a variety of other specialties and subspecialties that we did not mention, but we hope that you found this as a helpful starting point for your communication with physicians in your caregiving journey. 

For more information on medical terminology, check out Definitions for Caregiving Terms

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