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Monday, 8 November, 1999, 19:28 GMT
Elderly attack 'NHS ageism'
elderly
Discrimination fears have been growing for some time
Elderly patients have spoken out about what they regard as an "epidemic of ageism" in the NHS and called for an equal quality of care to that offered to younger people.

The new report, published by the charity Age Concern, follows studies suggesting that elderly patients are denied treatments for cancer and high blood pressure, and that doctors fail to offer them the best advice.

Comments from patients in the Age Concern report show the elderly feel they are denied the best treatments simply because of their age.

This is because health authorities have policies denying older patients certain treatments because they will not benefit as much.

'Epidemic'

Sally Greengross, director general of Age Concern England, said: "The government must act now to halt the spread of the national epidemic of ageism in the NHS.

"The problem lies not only with issues of local or national policy but also with the attitude of the health professional.

"This report presents loudly and clearly the voices of older people who say they feel fobbed off, undervalued and even abused by the NHS because of their age.

"All older people should be entitled to top quality care wherecer they live, on the basis of clinical need.

"The government must take the necessary steps to outlaw ageism in the NHS. The first step would be to conduct its own thorough investigation of NHS policies and practices which discriminate against older people."

Tough decisions

However, while the British Medical Association supported Age Concern's call from prompt action, it pointed out that tough decisions had to made when it came to deciding who should benefit from limited health service resources.

Responding to one claim that a man was denied a heart transplant simply because he was over 60, Dr Ian Bogle, chairman of the association, said: "If a transplant surgeon is assessing whether a patient should be considered for a heart, ideally the judgement should be made simply on the patient's capacity to benefit from the treatment.

"However, we have a desperate shortage of organs for transplant, and inevitably difficult decisions have to be made about which patient will benefit most, in terms of their prospects of making a good recovery and the number of years they are likely to survive.

"Patterns of treatment will not be the same for older and younger people because some diseases progress in different ways depending on your age, but the quality of treatment should be the same."

And he denied that ageism was commonplace throughout the NHS.

"Inevitably a report like this one focuses on poor practice and unacceptable attitudes, but there is another, better picture," he said.

"We have hundreds of thousands of caring, dedicated staff in the NHS who are committed to ensuring that older patients get high quality treatment and the respect they deserve. They would completely repudiate the examples of unfairness and rudeness identified in the Age Concern report."

Action

As well as presenting individuals' experiences of the NHS, the report identified other key issues.

These were:

  • That women over 65 are not invited for routine breast screening, even though almost two thirds of deaths from the disease occur in this age group
  • A fifth of all heart units operate an age-related admissions policy even though 66% of those treated for heart attacks were over 65
  • That many clinical trials investigating cancer excluded the elderly, despite a third of cancers occurring in the over 75s

The Imperial Cancer Research Fund said it shared Age Concern's worries about cancer care for the elderly.

In some cases there were valid reasons for refusing treatment, it said in a statement, such as tolerance of side effects.

But in others ageism was a factor.

"We believe that all elderly people should have treatment options explained to them and be able to come to their own decisions after discussion with their doctor," it stated.

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