NHS 'Ageism Prevents Older Cancer Patients Getting Best Treatment', Charity Warns

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The UK has some of the worst cancer survival rates in Europe for older people, charity warns | Alamy

Ageism in the NHS is stopping some older cancer patients getting the best treatments, a charity has warned.

Nearly half of specialist cancer medics believe that age discrimination by health professionals is resulting in older cancer patients not getting the best treatment, a poll by Macmillan Cancer Support suggests.

And 45% of 155 GPs, oncologists and specialist cancer nurses surveyed said they have dealt with a cancer patient who has been refused treatment on the grounds that they were too old.

Macmillan said the UK has some of the worst cancer survival rates in Europe for older people.

To ensure treatment decisions are not based on age alone, patients overall physical and mental wellbeing should be assessed when considering cancer treatment, the charity said.

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Ciaran Devane, chief executive at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: "Health professionals' concerns about the prevalence of age discrimination in cancer care mustn't be ignored.

"Unless staff are given the time and training to carry out a proper assessment of a patient's overall physical and mental wellbeing, some patients will be unfairly written-off as 'too old' for treatment.

"The right practical support, whether it's transport or help with caring responsibilities must also be put in place so older people needing treatment can actually take it up.

"The number of older people (aged 65 and over) living with cancer in the UK is set to rocket in the next 20 years from 1.3 million to 4.1 million.

"Unless the barriers to timely treatment are tackled now, many older people could die unnecessarily from cancer and services will become unaffordable."

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: "It is shocking and wrong to deny people treatment just because of their age, which is why we have made it illegal.

"However, we agree that more still needs to be done to improve treatment for cancer patients over 70 - which is why we worked with Macmillan on this report to understand how to address this.

"Our ambition is to be the best in Europe for cancer care and we are committed to improving survival rates. To achieve this, we are investing more than £750 million over four years to improve cancer services and outcomes."

National Cancer Director Professor Sir Mike Richards accepted there was a "significant problem", but he insisted it was not done intentionally.

"Regrettably yes I do recognise that it is a significant problem that we see patients too often are assessed on the basis of their age rather than their fitness," he told BBC Radio 4's Today.

"For some people, really intensive treatments are not going to be appropriate, they wouldn't be able to withstand that.
"But you should be basing that on an assessment of the patient's fitness or frailty not on their biological or chronological age.

"From the research we have done through the Department of Health, it is not that it is in any way intentional but it's subliminal in a way that people do seem to age above other frailty factors when, if you ask them directly, they would say 'Oh no I will do it based on fitness and frailty'."

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