A new look into cancer treatment in the UK has raised the alarm that people over 65 may be being denied the best cancer treatments because of their age, despite many being robust enough to withstand the treatments.
The research poll, carried out as a joint effort between Macmillan Cancer Support, Age UK and the Department of Health, evaluated five pilot projects that aim to improve on the UK’s lagging cancer survival rates.
The poll found that 45% of oncologists, cancer clinical nurse specialists and GPs reported having witnessed cancer patients being refused treatment by other staff on the grounds they were “too old.” The research also said that 67% of those surveyed heard health professionals speak to older cancer patients in what was termed a “condescending or dismissive way.”
Previous research has demonstrated that older patients were less likely to be put forward for aggressive cancer treatments like surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy under the mistaken notion that, because of their age, they would not survive the treatments or, in some cases, that those expensive therapies would be better allocated to younger patients.
In order to dissuade them from making such blanket judgments Macmillan Cancer Support, Age UK and the Department of Health, set out a broad number of recommendations, including the need for comprehensive assessments that will investigate elderly patients’ existing medical conditions, physical and mental well-being and anticipated post-operative care.
Said Ciarán Devane, chief executive at Macmillan Cancer Support, in a statement:
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.
Unless the barriers to timely treatment are tackled now, many older people could die unnecessarily from cancer and services will become unaffordable.
This sentiment was echoed by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt who 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. [...] To achieve this, we are investing more than £750 million over four years to improve cancer services and outcomes.”
This of course comes amid increasing concerns over changes to NHS services that, critics have warned, risk privatizing the NHS to the detriment of patient care. There have also been stark warnings from financial experts in recent weeks that the UK government’s health cuts are unsustainable and could impact patient care.
Earlier this month, the National Audit Office (NAO) warned that out of the £5.8bn NHS savings made by the government over the last year, £520m were one-off cuts. These, therefore, could not be repeated in future years and attempting to make the same level of cuts could, they warned, risk damaging patient care. The NAO also called on the government to take a stronger role in ensuring patient care wasn’t being rationed.
Whether the government will take this advice, and how this will square with Hunt’s commitment to improving cancer care for the over-65s, remains to be seen.