B S Raghavan

‘Ageist’ doctors negligent of elderly?

B.S.RAGHAVAN | Updated on July 15, 2012

The elderly among the population of almost every country had long suspected that they do not get the treatment they need and deserve from medical professionals who see them as being on the wrong side of 70-80 and feel that any effort on them is not worth the time and expense.

The common experience of older people when they take the reports of tests, say, of blood sugar or blood pressure, to their doctor is to be told, even when they are above the normal limits, that “for their age they are ok”. Maybe, if the abnormal readings had been taken seriously and preemptive medical counter-measures adopted, the possibility of the worsening of the condition of elderly patients could have been averted in time.

Similarly, from all that I have heard, there seems to be a tacit form of euthanasia already in vogue: Doctors advising relatives of elderly patients in ICU either to take them home or to agree to the withdrawal of life-support systems so that “they leave in dignity”.

These were all surmises till now. A recent legislation passed by British Parliament and coming into force from October brings into the open as well as into focus the entire attitude of indifference, if not negligence, of the medical profession towards the elderly. Doctors who discriminate against the elderly patients have been dubbed “ageist”.

SHOCKING FINDING

According to a report dated June 11 in The Telegraph, the law imposes a ban on any attempt by doctors to deny or water down treatment to the elderly. It follows “a series of shocking reports showing that older people often suffer sub-standard care and uneven treatment in the NHS (National Health Service) and the social care system.”

For instance, the report refers to the “accusation” of the Health Service Ombudsman that the NHS failed to meet “even the most basic standards of care” for the over-65s in England.

Another shocking finding was that many older patients were being denied adequate food or drink in hospitals while others were left unwashed, and in some cases died alone because staff had forgotten to inform loved ones.

Indeed, the widely prevalent violation, tantamount to a criminal offence, of the right of the elderly for proper treatment brought out both by the Health Service Ombudsman and research undertaken by the King’s Fund is beyond belief.

Here is a gist: Women over 65 are more likely to die from breast cancer because they are “under-treated”, and are less likely to be given radiotherapy or chemotherapy; women over 70 are almost a fifth less likely to have surgery on breast tumours than younger patients; older people waited longer than younger people in casualty departments and were less likely to be referred to intensive care or to have surgery following a traumatic injury; older people with cancer had less access to palliative care than younger counterparts; they were also examined and given less treatment than younger patients for conditions including heart disease and stroke.

DISTURBING EXAMPLE

Insurance companies often add insult to injury by charging unbearably higher rates from older customers and refusing to meet certain categories of expenses in hospitalisation, medical/surgical procedures and the like on the ground of “pre-existing” condition. In this background, the law has not come a day too soon. It makes it mandatory for doctors, nurses and institutional care-givers to do everything possible and by all means possible to ensure the well-being of the elderly and not to leave their treatment to chance.

The British Minister of State for Care Services has strongly justified the new law as being meant to inculcate in health and care workers the right attitude to help Britain’s ageing society. “We know that older people are not always treated with the dignity and respect they deserve because of ageist attitudes — this will not be tolerated,” he said.

He also gave the disturbing example of an 84-year-old woman who was diagnosed with a leaking heart valve. When she asked to have the problem fixed, doctors said: “What are you bothered about, at your age?”

Unlike in Britain, life is not precious in India and the cavalier attitude of doctors towards the elderly must be causing havoc. Here is an aspect that is crying for the attention of the Government and the civil society.

Published on July 15, 2012

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