Age Discrimination in the Health Industry
August 20, 2017
According to a new report, older people who go to the hospital are at risk for dangerous and potentially deadly medical misdiagnoses as a result of ageism. Ageism is prejudice or discrimination against someone because of how old they are. When doctors unfairly profile people who are 65 or older, it puts them at risk for unsafe medication side effects, medical misdiagnoses as well as unnecessary tests and treatment.
Ageism in the health industry is a particularly pressing issue because people over the age of 65 go to the doctor more frequently than younger patients, according to the American Society on Aging (ASA). In fact, the ASA finds that patients 65 years and older go to the doctor an average of 12 times per year. Although people expect to be treated both properly and fairly when seeking medical attention, doctors can make unfair judgments that lead to harmful mistakes.
Doctors can have many biases that are dangerous for their older patients. Sometimes, doctors have certain ideas of what the mental health, cognitive ability and physical health of an older person will typically be. Even if an older patient does not meet the stereotype, doctors may treat them like they do. One example of this is when a female patient was brought into a hospital because she had become delirious from serious dehydration. Since she was an older woman, doctors assumed she had dementia. Instead of giving her IV fluids, they recommended that she go into hospice care.
Over treating an older patient can be just as or even more dangerous than under treating them. Over 4 million people over the age of 65 have surgeries each year in the U.S. alone. The ASA notes that other common types of over treatment include certain prostate screenings, tests and procedures. Over treatment puts geriatric patients at a greater risk for being in intensive care, getting infections, developing urinary incontinence as a consequence of unnecessary surgery and the over diagnosis of benign and slow-growing tumors. Before embarking on dangerous and unnecessary surgeries, tests or other procedures, doctors should properly evaluate medical risks and benefits for their older patients.
Another major obstacle that older patients face is communication. The ASA reports that when doctors speak in “elderspeak”, a style of slow, repetitive, simple and loud speech improperly used to communicate with older patients, many people become resistant to medical care. Patients 65 and older are more likely to say that a doctor acted impatient and was less engaging, kind and fair. One survey found that nearly 40% of older patients reported that doctors had been demeaning or talked down to them.
Geriatric care, known as “elder care” management, is the planning and coordinating of care for the elderly. Currently, there are about 7,500 doctors in the U.S. who specialize in the care and treatment of patients over 65-years-old. U.S. News recently investigated this topic and found that in order to properly treat the 12 million people over 65, there would need to be at least 17,000 geriatricians working in the health industry. The age group is also a growing one; by 2030 researchers estimate that people 65 and older will account for 20% of the United States population – that’s 70 million people.
Lastly, fewer doctors now accept Medicare health plans. While Medicare offers many benefits, especially because anyone over 65 can obtain coverage, some doctors decide to “opt out” because they can make more money by charging out of pocket for services. This leaves older patients in the lurch both medically and financially. Paying out of pocket for medical expenses can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and if a patient cannot afford treatment, it puts their life and overall wellbeing at serious risk.
Luckily, some professional groups are taking measures to fight against the ageism that occurs in the health industry. The ASA has called on an increase of funding for geriatric research, which would allow more doctors to study and specialize in treating senior patients. In addition, a greater number of nurse practitioners and physician assistants can take part in geriatric care training. The ASA advises that healthcare providers focus on creating positive images of older patients instead of relying on dangerous biases. It is important that the medical field works on fighting against ageism because not only is it unfair, it can be harmful or deadly.
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