“Too old” for surgery?

The Times, and other media, have recently reported that patients in their 70’s or older are subject to age discrimination by being denied operations which could improve their quality of life or even save their lives.

According to a report by the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) older patients are refused operations regardless of their underlying physical health. The Times quoted Professor Norman Williams, the President of the RCS, as saying: “it is alarming to think that the treatment the patient receives may be influenced by their age.”

The report by the RCS (called “Access All Ages”), produced in partnership with the charity Age UK, confirms that the older the patient the less likely he/she will be referred for surgical procedures.

This includes life saving and other procedures including coronary artery bypasses, hip replacements, breast excisions and hernia repairs.

A case study example provided in the Times is of George Robbins, aged 82, who leaves his home in South East London each morning to explore the city by bus, train and on foot. He was told last year that he had kidney cancer and he said he wanted the tumour removed. He therefore had his kidney removed at Guy’s Hospital, was back at home within 24 hours and up and about the next day. He said he wanted to ensure he could continue his travels and quality of life.

Shantala Heath, Specialist Medical Negligence Solicitor at Fairweathers commented as follows:-

“It is well known that the NHS and other services face a challenge in caring for an ever ageing population with the most recent interim life table released by the Office for National Statistics showing that the average life expectancy in the UK is now 78.4 years for males and 82.4 years for females.

We all know elderly family members whose health still allows them to enjoy their lives immensely, including spending time with grandchildren, running their own households, gardening, going travelling and so on.

Older people often present with conditions for which surgery can make all the difference – eg a hip or knee replacement.

Although surgery in elderly patients can carry risks these need to be carefully weighed against the benefits to their health and all options discussed in detail.

Surgery should certainly not be refused on the grounds of age alone and, where it is, the NHS runs the risk of unlawful discrimination as well as medical negligence.”