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Elderly denied NHS care ‘can sue’

Elderly patient in hospitalWellbeing and dignity must be upheld

Age discrimination by NHS hospitals is to be outlawed, ministers have announced.

From October, elderly patients will have the right to sue if they have been denied care based on age alone, says Care Minister Paul Burstow.

This will not mean patients can demand any treatment they want. Care decisions will still be judged according to clinical need by doctors.

But NHS staff will have a legal duty to consider wellbeing and dignity.

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It sends a clear message to service providers that discrimination law will in future also protect older people”

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Michelle Mitchell
Age UK

The decision, which applies to hospitals in England, Wales and Scotland, follows a consultation exercise on the issue by the Home Office.

The charity Age UK said it was long overdue but good news.

Equal rights

Age discrimination in the workplace is already unlawful, but until now there was no equivalent legal requirement on public and private services.

This has led to inconsistent practices and unfair treatment, with the needs of older people in particular being ignored, the government says.

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Too old?

When Kenneth Worden, from Chester, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of bladder cancer he was told by doctors that he was too old at the age of 78 to have surgery.

But his daughter Michele Halligan, who is trained as a midwife, disagreed. She was determined that her father should have the treatment in a bid to ease his distressing symptoms – he was in a great deal of pain and had disturbed sleep because of he had to use the toilet every half hour.

After more consultations Kenneth was eventually treated by surgeons at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.

Three years on from his surgery he is fit and well with no signs of the cancer returning.

An investigation by The King’s Fund recently found treatable conditions such as incontinence and depression were sometimes ignored in older patients.

Last year the Health Service Ombudsman accused the NHS of failing to meet “even the most basic standards of care” for the over-65s in England.

Mr Burstow said: “I have heard numerous stories from people who feel that they have been discriminated against.

“One 84-year-old lady told how her doctor had been treating her for angina for years.

“Two years ago, she had an appointment to have an operation on a bunion on her big toe. However, because of the angina, they sent her for a heart scan.

“They found that it was not angina, but actually a leaky valve. She asked if she could have this fixed and the doctors said: ‘What are you bothered about, at your age?’

“I am pleased to say she stuck to her guns and said she wanted the job done. At long last, she has managed to get an appointment but the whole experience made her feel pushed aside.

“This is exactly the kind of discrimination we want to rule out in the NHS.”

There will be specific exceptions from the new law, for example insurance companies will still be able to use age when assessing risk and deciding prices.

Michelle Mitchell, charity director general of Age UK, said: “We hope the new law which will apply to the NHS, social care and other services will prevent older people being denied proper treatment because of their age.

“It sends a clear message to service providers that discrimination law will in future also protect older people.”

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