Seniors Medical Care Poses Bias Question

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 1, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Seniors Medical Care Poses Bias Question


Byline: Joyce Howard Price, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Growing evidence suggests American seniors are being shortchanged by the nation's medical system.

Although they have the greatest risk of dying from such diseases as heart disorders, cancer and influenza/pneumonia, numerous studies show that the aged are often passed over for the most aggressive forms of treatment and diagnostic and preventive care that is standard for younger patients.

Informed observers blame the disparity on what they perceive as a long-standing bias against older Americans by medical personnel. They say this bias is based on misconceptions that this patient population cannot tolerate certain treatments, such as chemotherapy, or doesn't want them.

"Studies show that older people can tolerate chemotherapy and radiation therapy and do just as well as younger people," said Dr. Charles A. Cefalu, president of the Louisiana Geriatric Society.

Critics also blame doctors for failing to prod older patients to be screened for life-threatening conditions such as breast, cervical, prostate or colon cancer or to be immunized against the flu. While the elderly account for 80 percent of all flu-related deaths in the United States yearly, two-thirds of older Americans fail to get annual flu shots.

"Older people are very disadvantaged by the U.S. medical system. Only about 40 percent of their costs are covered by Medicare and Medicaid. ... Care of older people needs to be dramatically improved," Dr. Robert N. Butler, head of the New York-based International Longevity Center, said in a telephone interview.

"I concur 100 percent," said Dr. Cefalu, a former board member of the American Geriatric Society. He said Medicare has cut reimbursement of primary care physicians who treat the elderly by 17 percent in the past three years.

More than 60 percent of doctors who offer such care are threatening to end it, if a threatened 4.5 percent reduction in Medicare reimbursement goes through in fiscal 2004, according to Dr. Cefalu.

"Elderly patients take a lot more [of a physician's] time," he said in a telephone interview.

Dr. Butler, the founding director of the National Institute on Aging, is one of many specialists on aging who criticized the U.S. medical establishment for age discrimination in the November edition of AARP Bulletin.

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