The Daily Telegraph
December 7th 1999

Inquiry call into 'neglect of elderly'

By Celia Hall, Medical Editor

CALLS for new legislation and a Government inquiry into age discrimination in the National Health Service were made yesterday after allegations that elderly people were neglected in hospitals in an unspoken policy of "involuntary euthanasia".

Age Concern demanded legislation and the Conservatives sought a full investigation after reports in The Telegraph of claims from senior doctors, patient groups and relatives that many elderly people were suffering neglect in hospitals.

But claims that people were deprived of food and water and that pressure on hospital beds led to care being "inappropriately limited" were denied by John Hutton, the minister of state for social care. "This is scaremongering," he said. "This is effectively saying that elderly people are being murdered by doctors and nurses. It is completely without foundation."

Asked about neglect, Mr Hutton said: "We take seriously any criticisms founded in fact. There is an established complaints procedure in the NHS and we hope that complaints are properly responded to by the hospital authorities."

But Dr Ian Bogle, the chairman of the British Medical Association, said he believed that elderly people did receive lower standards of care. "That is a problem of ageism in society and a result of huge pressure in the system."

Recent BMA guidelines say doctors should be allowed to authorise withdrawal of food and water by tube for stroke victims and the confused elderly, even when the patient is not terminally ill. Dr Bogle said: "Our ethical guidance is designed to help doctors make good decisions. It is not about euthanasia and it is certainly not about making hasty decisions to free up beds."

Stephen Thornton, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents managers, said that pressure to meet targets and cut costs had led to a dilution of care. But he said that patients "are not deliberately being deprived of treatment to reduce pressure on beds".

Age Concern said that its recent survey had found that one in 10 people believed a relative had been allowed to die because of the low standard of basic care. Its statement was based on "thousands" of responses. Sally Greengross, the charity's director, said she was appalled at the situation and that there should now be an inquiry. "We need urgent legislation to prevent this discrimination." she said.

Dr Liam Fox, the shadow health secretary, said: "It is unacceptable for Government priorities to have the effect of depriving elderly people of the treatment they are entitled to receive. There is an urgent need for an inquiry to establish how bad the situation is and what can be done to rectify it", he said.