Older patients suffer age discriminationSurvey finds GPs offer fewer services to elderly

14 February 2007

Around half of doctors discriminate against older patients because of their age, according to research published today.

The survey, published in the journal Quality and Safety in Health Care, found patients over 65 were treated differently from those who were younger.

Eighty-five medical professionals made up of GPs, elderly care specialists and cardiologists were questioned about the treatment of  72 fictional patients with angina who were all aged between 45 and 92, with varying degrees of heart problems. Photographs of the patients were also provided.

The study, carried out by researchers from University College London, found that older patients were less likely to be referred to a cardiologist and given an angiogram or exercise tolerance tests compared to middle-aged patients.

They were also less likely to be offered revascularisation (opening up of blood vessels).

Patients 'told to come back'

Instead, they were more likely to have their medication changed and told to come back at a later date.

The doctors said they took other factors into consideration when deciding treatment, including a patient's wishes, potential complications of treatment and whether the patients were frail.

One doctor told researchers: ‘I'd like to think that I would treat the individual. I think generally you have to try and identify from an individual what is in their best interests. I don't think bypass surgery in an 87-year-old is in their interests.’

But the study authors concluded that age was the biggest influence on half of the doctors in the study.

Blatant discrimination

Dr Lorna Layward, research manager for Help the Aged, said: ‘It is shocking that such blatant age discrimination exists in GP practices today.

‘A person's age should never be used as a factor to determine treatment.

‘What a backward system to suggest that people are prioritised solely on the basis of their age, when a 65-year-old may actually be in better health than a 45-year-old.

Appropriate treatment

‘What is far more alarming is the fact that little is actually known about the appropriateness of many treatments for older people.

‘Over 65s are rarely included in any clinical trials so where's the evidence about what works and what doesn't?

‘Many older people have been paying into the NHS since its inception and believed they would be looked after from cradle to grave, but all this does is help see them into an early grave.’