The new regulations banning age discrimination in the NHS unveiled this week don't come into effect until October, yet already they are being unfairly lambasted by some of those who will be expected to carry them out.
Chair of the NHS Alliance, Dr Michael Dixon was reported in Pulse as describing the legislation as a 'knee jerk reaction', which is strange as the regulations were due to come into effect in April this year and have been delayed by a further six months because of a lengthy consultation process and concerns about giving ample preparation time. A slow knee jerk indeed.
Recent research commissioned by the Department of Health shows how much the new legislation is needed if we are to make sure that everyone gets person-centred and appropriate treatment. The research, published this year, found some doctors would make decisions based on age rather than clinical appropriateness. For instance, someone in their 70s and in poor health was more likely to be considered for treatment than someone in their 80s in good health.
A wealth of evidence across many health conditions including cancer, heart disease, stroke and mental health shows that older people are not getting equal access to the treatment they need and could benefit from, in part due to ingrained ageist attitudes in the system. When the majority of NHS users are older people, that's a fundamental failing in how the health service is run. Everyone deserves the best possible treatment and care regardless of their age. We live in an ageing society in which the nature of later life is changing at an incredibly fast rate. The NHS will need to start looking past chronological age and make sure all care is truly person-centred and appropriate to people's needs – the new legal imperative merely joins the existing moral imperative which should be an intrinsic part of our value system.
We fear there may be a culture clash between the demands made by the legislation and the attitudes of some senior doctors. Decision-making based on a person's age can be perceived as 'common sense', often underpinned by misunderstandings of older people's capacity to recover from treatment and the perceived "value" of spending money on people in later life. This isn't common sense, it's discrimination and the fact that these comments are made in such a ‘matter of fact' way, without fear of remonstration or challenge illustrate how widespread age discrimination has become in our society.
Michelle Mitchell is the charity director general of Age UK.