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Age should not close the door to surgery, warns RCS and Age UK

15 October 2012

Decisions on whether older people are put forward for surgery must not be based on out-dated assumptions of age and fitness, warns a new report launched today.

As people are living longer and healthier lives, using someone’s age as a shortcut to assessing their suitability for treatment should now be redundant. Instead a person’s overall health – or “biological age” must be the main consideration, says a report released today by the Royal College of Surgeons and Age UK.

It shows that whilst a patient’s health needs – including conditions that could be treated by surgery - increases with age, planned (elective) surgery rates decline steadily for people as they grow older. Thus the gap between the increasing health need and access to surgery means many older people are missing out on potentially life-saving treatment.

The comprehensive new study, ‘Access all Ages: Assessing the impact of age on access to surgical treatment’, published by Age UK, The Royal College of Surgeons and MHP Health Mandate, examines the patterns of surgical treatment in relation to age across eight areas of surgery.

‘Access all Ages’ looks at the potential causes of these trends and makes recommendations as to how the NHS can ensure that all patients can access the best possible surgical treatment, irrespective of their age. It highlights that communication with patients to discuss risks and benefits, and the effective working of multi-disciplinary teams to bring together several specialists, including geriatricians, is essential in a joint decision-making process.

The study also warns that the £20bn NHS efficiency drive heightens the danger of older people being disproportionately impacted, as restrictions may be imposed because of the perceived reduction in the cost effectiveness of providing treatment when relative life expectancy is shorter. It highlights that a new ban on age discrimination in the NHS came into effect at the beginning of this month, providing a legal framework to go alongside moral and professional imperatives to ensure that older patients receive the most appropriate treatment for their individual needs whatever their date of birth.

‘Access all Ages' also raises concerns that the way the NHS has approached the care of older people has failed to keep up with the major advances in medical and social care which have resulted in people living longer healthier lives.

Among the findings in the report are:

  • The incidence of breast cancer peaks in the 85+ age group, while the surgery rate peaks for patients in their mid-60s and then declines sharply from the age of 70.
  • People over the age of 65 make up the majority of recipients of joint replacement surgery. However, the rate of elective knee replacement and hip replacement surgery for patients in their late 70s and over has dropped sharply and consistently over the three years examined.
  • Ten thousand men a year die from prostate cancer and the incidence of the disease increases with age. Overall, half of men who develop the disease will die as a direct result of it. Again, surgical treatment rates for the disease do not match the number of new cases being diagnosed amongst the older population.
  • Emergency surgical procedures are increasing for hernias in older people, while the planned surgery rates plummet once a patient passes the 75-79 bracket.

The study is an important step towards understanding the variations in surgical care that exist according to age, as well as the explanations for them.

Professor Norman Williams, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, said:

“This isn’t about surgeons slamming the theatre door on older people. In fact it is alarming to think that the treatment a patient receives may be influenced by their age. There are multiple factors that affect treatment decisions and often valid explanations as to why older people either opt out of surgery - or are recommended non-surgical treatment alternatives. The key is that it is a decision based on the patient rather than how old they are that matters.”

The report outlines that not everyone will benefit from surgery and there are legitimate reasons why older people may decide with their clinician not to go ahead with a procedure.

There can also be barriers before someone is even in front of their surgeon. For example, some symptoms can be dismissed as an inevitable part of ageing rather than a potential sign of ill health. This can mean that a disease is at a more advanced stage by the time they are diagnosed; ruling out surgical treatment. Equally, a comprehensive assessment of a person's health may reveal that the risks of surgery outweigh the benefits.

Michelle Mitchell of Age UK said “When it comes to peoples’ health, their date of birth actually tells you very little. A healthy living 80 year old could literally run rings round someone many years younger who does not share the same good health. Yet in the past, too many medical decisions we believe have been made on age alone with informal “cut-offs” imposed so that people over a certain age were denied treatment.

“This report shows the large gap between the number of people living with a condition or health need and the surgery rates to treat older people. We would like surgeons and other health professionals to read this report carefully and examine what they can do to ensure that age discrimination is eradicated from the NHS, as legislation now demands.”

‘Access all Ages’ recommends that all those with an interest in improving health outcomes must work together to safely optimise surgery rates for older people. It urges clinicians to inform patients if surgery has been ruled out for a condition where it would normally be considered and provide reasons. The report concludes that there should be no informal ‘cut-offs’ and that older patients and their families must be supported to challenge this where they suspect it is happening.

Access all Ages: Assessing the impact of age on access to surgical treatment

Notes to editor:

For more information, please contact the RCS press office on:

  1. The Royal College of Surgeons of England is committed to enabling surgeons to achieve and maintain the highest standards of surgical practice and patient care. Registered charity number: 212808. For more
  2. Age UK : For media enquiries relating to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland please contact the appropriate national office: Age Scotland on 0131 668 8055, Age Cymru on 029 2043 1562 and Age NI on 028 9024 5729. Age UK is the new force combining Age Concern and Help the Aged, dedicated to improving later life. We provide free information, advice and support to over six million people; commercial products and services to well over one million customers; and research and campaign on the issues that matter to people in later life. Our work focuses on five key areas: money matters, health and well being, home and care, work and training and leisure and lifestyle. We work with our national partners, Age Scotland, Age Cymru and Age NI (together the Age UK Family), our local Age UK partners in England and local Age Concerns. We also work internationally for people in later life as a member of the DEC and with our sister charity Help Age International.Age UK is a charitable company limited by guarantee and registered in England (registered charity number 1128267 and company number 6825798). Age Concern England and Help the Aged (both registered charities), and their trading and other associated companies merged on the 1st April 2009. Together they have formed the Age UK Group (“we”). Charitable services are offered through Age UK and commercial products are offered by the Charity’s trading companies, which donate their net profits to Age UK (the Charity).
  3. MHP Health Mandate is an award-winning specialist health policy consultancy.