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Rothstein Honored for Work with Elderly Dementia Patients

Feb 17, 2009 2:29 PM

SALT LAKE CITY-Gerald Rothstein, M.D., began his professional life treating and studying blood diseases as a hematologist and oncologist, but an interest in why some newborns become septic led him onto a career path he hadn't imagined-caring for the elderly.

This Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009, Rothstein, who established and led the Division of Geriatrics at the University of Utah School of Medicine for 19 years, will be honored for his work with elderly dementia patients when he receives the ALEXA Award from the Utah Alzheimer's Association. The award is given to an individual who exemplifies a lifetime of achievement in understanding and treating Alzheimer's disease, and Jack Jenks, executive director of the Alzheimer's Association Utah Chapter, says no one deserves the award more than Rothstein.

"He has dedicated his life to being a great doctor for his patients," Jenks says. "But the real impact is his leveraging the quality of dementia care by teaching other doctors to treat this difficult disease. Many physicians now treating dementia patients in Utah trained under Dr. Rothstein."

A popular lecturer and author, Rothstein, professor of internal medicine at the University, served as an adviser to the Utah Division of Aging and Adult Services and was medical director of the Garden Terrace Alzheimer's Center of Excellence. He also served on the American Geriatrics Society Research Advisory Committee, was a charter member of the National Institutes of Health Geriatric Study Section, and was president of the Western Association of Physicians, among numerous other positions in various organizations.

Rothstein trained as a hematologist and oncologist. When a pediatrician serving a postdoctoral fellowship under his supervision began researching why some newborns become septic at birth, Rothstein was intrigued. Their joint research in the 1980s uncovered that an inability to regulate bone marrow and produce blood cells caused newborns to become septic. This made Rothstein wonder whether the same was true in older patients prone to infections, and further research showed that although older people have difficulty elevating their production of blood cells, it stems from a different cause.

That work set a new course for Rothstein's career. In 1987, the chair of the Department of Internal Medicine asked him if he'd like to start a new division devoted to geriatric care. He accepted the challenge, and began building a division. In 1992, he received major recognition when the U.S. Veterans Affairs Administration awarded a Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center of Excellence grant to Rothstein for the Salt Lake City VA Hospital.

Under his direction, the geriatrics division has grown to 12 faculty positions and geriatric training is now part of the U medical school curriculum. Teaching internists about geriatric care has been a priority for Rothstein since he started the division. More than 300 internists and other health providers have been trained by the University's geriatric program and Rothstein says their geriatric national board scores are among the highest in the country. "We've been ahead of the curve," he says.

As the U.S. population ages, dementia care has become one of the nation's most pressing health-care needs. There is a critical shortage of geriatric specialists to take care of older patients, particularly with dementia, which, according to Rothstein, makes it critical to train physicians and other health-care providers in geriatric care. "There is a vast shortage of geriatricians. The idea of training only geriatric specialists to take care of older people with cognitive disorders wouldn't be enough," he says. "Any health provider who takes care of adults should get training to take care of the bulk of dementia issues. When the situation exceeds a provider's expertise, a specialist can be called in."

As the need for dementia care has increased, so has the quality and effectiveness of that care, says Rothstein. Much more is known about dementia today than 20 years ago, and that has improved the lives of both patients and their families.

In Utah, much of the improved dementia care has paralleled Rothstein's career. "He has helped so many doctors and patients in treating this difficult disease," Jenks says. "There's no doctor in Utah with a larger and highly regarded career in dementia care."

Mark A. Supiano, M.D., professor and chief of geriatrics at the U medical school, adds that the award is well deserved for Rothstein's work of building the geriatrics program and more than 30 years' service to the University. 

Although the Alexis Award is being given in his name, many people deserve credit, Rothstein says-nurses, doctors, patients, and their families. His wife, Virginia, also deserves thanks for her understanding and support.

"I am honored and very pleased the University is being recognized for its efforts in geriatric medicine," he says. "I'm proud of all my colleagues who made it possible for me to be selected for the ALEXA Award."