Changes in law for care of the elderly

Preventing treatment to NHS patients because of their age is to become illegal. From October, elderly patients will be allowed to take further action if they feel they have been discriminated against by NHS staff due to their age.

The new measure cones amidst increasing volumes of evidence that suggest the elderly are routinely being refused treatments for major illnesses such as cancer, strokes and heart problems purely because of their age.

People who feel they have been refused operations, tests or scans that are routinely available to younger patients will be able to pursue legal action if they feel they have been treated without due dignity and care. This action will also be available to relatives too, and compensation can be sought by both patients and relatives.

The Care Services Minister Paul Burstow believes that the elderly are sometimes treated badly due to ‘ageist attitudes’ and this must be remedied.

The Government has amended the Equalities Act to make it illegal for NHS staff to assume patients are too old for care.

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History of poor care

This comes on the back of a series of damming reports highlighting the poor care given to elderly patients, ranging from being routinely left without access to food or water, to being left for prolonged periods in soiled clothing.

With the new law comes the demand that all clinicians will have to carry out full and detailed consultations which take into account a patient’s fitness and health before making a final judgement on recommended treatment. There will also be a responsibility on the staff involved to consider the well being and dignity of each elderly patient.

The new amendment applies to hospitals in England, Wales and Scotland and follows a consultation exercise which was commissioned by the Home Office.

Research backs up claims of bad practice

Recent research by the King’s Fund found that treatable conditions such as incontinence and depression were often ignored in older patients and implied that doctors frequently merely looked at a patients’ date of birth in their notes before drawing up a treatment plan without even having seeing them.

Blame was laid partly at the foot of the system by the Kings Fund researchers. It points out that the volume of work and pressure to meet targets is severely compromising the whole care system. Although elderly patients make up almost two thirds of admissions, they frequently find themselves admitted to the wrong wards or being passed round ‘like parcels’ because of the rush to admit them, the research went on to say.

In addition NICE, the NHS watchdog, highlighted the fact that elderly patients with hip fractures are often seen as ‘low priority’ by NHS staff. Care for patients with dementia is also a huge concern. It is believed that thousands who suffer are never given a formal diagnosis because clinicians simply view it as an inevitable sign of growing older.

Positive move forward

The charity Age UK said the new legislation had been a long time in coming, but nonetheless it was positive news. Being ageist at work is already against the law, but until now this did not extend to the public and private services. Consequently there has been inconsistent practices and patently unfair treatment, with the needs of older people in particular being ignored, according to the government.

The charity director of Age UK went on to say,”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.”

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

Overall there needs to be a better trained staff, strong leadership and the direct involvement of patients if care is to be improved for the long term, say researchers.