The Care Minister, Paul Burstow, this week announced that in the near future elderly patients who suffer age discrimination with regard to their care will have the right to sue the National Health Service (NHS). This right will also apply to their relatives
Although discrimination on the grounds of age is already illegal in the workplace, the same legal safeguard has not been applied to health service providers. Discrimination cases will be heard by County courts, and successful claimants may be entitled to compensation from the NHS.
The announcement follows a year-long consultation by the Home Office, together with warnings about endemic age discrimination from NICE, the NHS watchdog, and the Health Service Ombudsman.
Specifically, an amendment has been made to the Equalities Act 2010, which will mean that NHS staff cannot simply assume patients are too old to benefit from certain procedures and medications. The new rule will apply, from October this year, to all hospitals in England, Wales and Scotland.
According to BBC News, this change to the law means patients of advanced years will have the right to expect that NHS staff will consider their well-being and dignity. Additionally, an assessment of fitness as well as clinical need must be taken into consideration by doctors, when decisions about suitable treatments for elderly patients are made.
For example, a person in their eighties who is fit enough to be treated should not be passed over for heart surgery, help with their incontinence or depression, just because they are advanced in age.
The change has been welcomed by concerned campaigners such as Age UK, and the charity Macmillan Cancer Support. The latter published a report in March, which said a lack of treatment or insufficient treatment was contributing to 14,000 deaths a year in cancer patients over the age of 75.
Conversely, Dr Michael Dixon, chair of the NHS Alliance, a multi-professional representative body for Primary Care Trusts, warned that the anti-discrimination law could become counterproductive, if it ended up being: “more about political correctness and ticking boxes than common sense”.