The charity Age Concern said growing allegations of "involuntary euthanasia", in which food and drink is withheld from patients who are not terminally ill, indicated a loss of confidence among the elderly in the NHS.
Police have received scores of reports of patients dying in suspicious circumstances. Investigations have been carried out at Tameside General Hospital, Royal Oldham Hospital and Cardiff Royal Infirmary. At Kingsway Hospital, Derby, three nurses remain suspended after a 22- month investigation into the deaths of up to 30 patients. A report on the case is with the Crown Prosecution service.
A spokeswoman for Age Concern said: "The fact that people are going to the police rather than using the NHS complaints procedure means they must be taken seriously. They are cutting out the normal system because it is failing them. The Government cannot ignore these claims. It must hold an inquiry."
The charity accused ministers of reneging on their pre-election pledge to investigate age discrimination in the NHS. In a report last month, it said it had received more than 1,000 letters from people who claimed they had been fobbed off, under-valued or abused by the health service. Examples cited in the report included a woman who overheard her GP on the phone to the consultant saying: "She was born in 1934. Is she worth treating?"
SOS NHS - Patients in Danger, a pressure group of concerned relatives, backed the inquiry calls and is considering taking to the European Court of Human Rights 50 examples of elderly patients who have died in similar circumstances.
In a case that highlights the growing mistrust between patients and doctors, Joan Atkinson, 60, yesterday described how her mother, Violet Vigus, died a week after a minor stroke during which she was refused anything to eat or drink.
Mrs Vigus, 83, had lived in an old people's home in King's Lynn for two years when she had two minor strokes in 48 hours which left her unable to swallow. Her daughter alleges that the GP issued instructions that her mother was not to be fed, claiming that this was in accordance with her mother's wishes, expressed to him verbally in a living will. But when the family complained, he admitted he had no written record of the request.
An independent review panel which investigated the complaint found in favour of the doctor, saying the care he recommended was "adequate and reasonable" but criticised him for failing to keep proper records. The daughter, Mrs Atkinson, and her sister remain dissatisfied and have taken their complaint to the General Medical Council.
Mrs Atkinson said her mother was wheelchair-bound and needed two nurses to take her to the lavatory. "In my opinion letting her die was the easiest option because she was a bit of nuisance. They are killing off old people - that is what is happening."
The British Medical Association said in guidelines issued last summer that feeding a patient through a tube is regarded as medical treatment and may, in certain circumstances, be withdrawn but oral feeding should never be withdrawn.
A BMA spokeswoman said: "It would be flying in the face of reality to say elderly patients are never neglected but we don't accept they are being starved to death to free beds."
John Hutton, the Health minister, dismissed claims of involuntary euthanasia as ludicrous. "There is not euthanasia in the NHS and there never has been," he said.Reuse content