What can we do to stop the abuse of older people in the health service?

Today’s Health Service Ombudsman report makes harrowing reading, highlighting ten case studies of appalling levels of care of older people in our hospitals.

Hilary Evans is head of public affairs at Age UK

Older patients are the largest cohort of NHS users. They represent over three in four NHS patients, sixty per cent of hospital admissions and seventy per cent of bed days in NHS hospitals. With older people making up the biggest user group, we might expect that they could look forward to the best and most specialised service from the NHS.

But today’s Health Service Ombudsman report makes harrowing reading, highlighting ten case studies of appalling levels of care of older people in our hospitals.

Mrs J died alone in hospital while her husband was left forgotten in a waiting room; Mrs H was transferred to a care home from an NHS hospital, arriving bruised, soaked in urine and wearing someone else’s clothes; Mr W’s local NHS Foundation Trust stopped treating him, then discharged him when he was not medically fit.

Of the ten people featured in the report, nine died during or shortly after the events described.

The Health Service Ombudsman points out that the cases, while shocking, are not isolated. Her office accepted 226 complaints relating to older people’s treatment within the NHS last year.

So, what can we do to stop this abuse of older people within our health service?

Firstly, the current NHS reforms are both a challenge and opportunity for older people. We support the government’s focus on outcomes, but have concerns about whether the reforms in the Health Bill will deliver the improvements needed for the growing numbers of older people living with multiple conditions.

We want to see commissioning levers put in place to hold health service providers to account – ensuring older people’s needs are met and preventing this shocking treatment.

Secondly, the report dwells on the experiences of older people suffering malnutrition in hospitals. Simple changes like implementing red trays for patients who need assistance to eat and protecting mealtimes from visits from doctors can make a huge difference in ensuring that more older people are able to eat well in hospital and are stronger and healthier when discharged.

We are calling for a Malnutrition Commission to bring renewed focus to this issue and to develop a comprehensive strategy to end malnutrition in hospitals.

Lastly, at Age UK, we want to see better specialist training for NHS staff in caring for older people. There is still often a deeply ingrained cultural bias against working in the geriatric field. But as our population ages, specialist knowledge will become more vital in dealing with the growing numbers of older people.

The number of people aged 65 and over is expected to rise by 65 per cent in the next 25 years to almost 16.4 million while the number of people over the age of 85 is predicted to double.

Staff need to be aware and mindful of the impact of ageing on the body, how comorbidities affect treatment and how to deal with increasingly common conditions such as dementia.

Age UK’s Hungry to be Heard campaign highlights the issue of malnutrition in hospitals; you can email your NHS Trust to ask them what they are doing to help end the scandal of malnourished older people in hospital.

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