Minister declares war on NHS ageism

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Ageism is to be banned in the NHS by Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, in a move to answer growing anxiety among elderly patients that they are being denied treatment because they are old.

Ageism is to be banned in the NHS by Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, in a move to answer growing anxiety among elderly patients that they are being denied treatment because they are old.

Mr Milburn is drawing up a framework of rules for hospitals and GPs to ensure ageism is ended in the NHS. Officials close to Mr Milburn have told the Independent on Sunday that if guidelines fail to work, legislation will be considered.

Family doctors and hospital staff will be told not to deny treatment to elderly people on grounds of age alone following a spate of reports of poor treatment for elderly patients.

"Ageism is unacceptable. We will produce a framework document by the autumn," he said.

The Government has stopped short of committing itself to legislate against ageism, in spite of demands for tougher action by Age Concern, and other groups for the elderly.

However, ministers across a range of Whitehall departments are studying the need for legislation. Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers is also looking at the need for anti-ageism legislation to end discrimination against the elderly in jobs.

The European Convention on Human Rights, which comes into force in the UK tomorrow, could force the Government's hand, however. Age Concern said Article Two might enable older people who are denied life-saving medical treatment, or their relatives, to challenge the health authorities.

"Also, protection against discrimination where enjoyment of Convention rights is concerned is contained in Article 14. This could possibly strengthen an action under Article 2 where it can be shown life-saving treatment has been denied on the basis of age," said Age Concern.

After a public outcry, Mr Milburn ordered a stop to the practice of putting "do not resuscitate" on elderly patients' notes because of their age. Now he intends to go further by insisting that equal treatment and drugs should be given to all patients, regardless of age.

However, there could still be difficulty over highly-expensive treatments, such as drugs for Alzheimer's disease which can cost as much as £100 a month. Doctors will still have to assess the cost-effectiveness of treatment before it is administered. That could allow loopholes to allow the Government, for example, to introduce new rules to enforce national standards for couples seeking in-vitro fertilisation on the NHS, while limiting free IVF treatment to women of 40 or under.

Age Concern has gathered a dossier of cases in its campaign for an end to ageism. These include a 70-year-old woman who is virtually deaf, but has been denied a cochlear implant after a long delay by her health authority to give priority to a younger patient.

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