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Study: Older adults often face discrimination in medical care

If you've ever felt that a doctor or nurse didn't pay proper attention to your health concerns simply because of your age, you are not alone. But while you may downplay the incident as just an annoying part of getting on in years, it can have serious implications.

About one in five adults 50 and older said they were victims of age-related discrimination in a doctor's office or hospital, according to a new study. Healthy older adults who believe they were victims are more likely to develop disabilities or illnesses than those who do not report discrimination. If they already have a disability or serious illness, it is more likely to get worse.

"People who feel they're discriminated against go to less preventive health visits, they get less preventive health screenings, like cancer screenings," says Dr. Stephanie Rogers, the study's lead researcher. "They don't fill as many of their prescriptions and they have delays in their tests and treatments."

Rogers, a geriatric physician at the University of California, San Francisco, says discrimination comes in two forms: interpersonal, often from doctors or nurses who don't have enough training to handle the complex medical needs of older adults; and systemic, in which hospitals and clinics are not equipped or staffed properly to manage the growing influx of elderly patients.

Many age-related problems are caused by poor communication. "Discrimination in health care is associated with patients feeling like they're getting less information from their doctor," Rogers says. Older adults often don't understand why certain procedures are being recommended or some medications are being prescribed. Rogers says a patient can lessen the impact of discrimination by speaking up. "Whenever they're given a new medication or a new treatment or new procedure, ask specifically about the risk and benefit," she says.

Rogers says that by becoming partners in their health care, patients can bridge communication problems and help minimize feelings that they are not being treated correctly. For example, older adults with numerous conditions may be prescribed drugs or procedures to treat their most serious illness, but the side effects may make them feel so sick, they cannot do activities they enjoy. "A lot of physicians think along the lines of what prolongs people's lives," Rogers says. But sometimes, aggressive treatments that prolong life may make that life less livable.

Be explicit with your doctor about what you want. "By clarifying their goals for their quality of life and for their medical care, they can help their doctor focus on which treatments are appropriate for them," Rogers says.

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