From 1 October it will be unlawful for healthcare providers to discriminate against or harass adult service users because of age.

Discrimination includes treating someone less favourably because of age (direct discrimination) and adopting a practice or applying a rule or policy that puts people of a particular age or age group at a disadvantage compared to others (indirect discrimination).  Both types of discrimination will be unlawful unless the service provider can show their actions are justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.  There are no special exemptions for providers of health and social care.

The new rules complement the existing public sector equality duty that already covers age equality.  The public sector duty requires those carrying out public sector functions to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between groups with different protected characteristics, such as people of different ages or ethnic backgrounds. This means actively considering equality when planning and commissioning healthcare services.

The new law will involve challenges for providers of health and social care across the sector.  Some policies and practices will have to be adapted, and services redesigned.   But more difficult still will be the need to change attitudes: people’s behaviour, particularly towards older people, can be influenced by deep seated, and often negative, stereotypical assumptions.  Organisations will need to take active steps to challenge those attitudes.  To an extent this can be achieved through appropriate training for all workers at all levels, including volunteers; but there also needs to be visible top-level engagement, from managers and clinical leaders, so that it is apparent to all that age equality is taken seriously.

Usefully, NHS South West has produced an audit tool to help providers identify and tackle potential age discrimination.

The Department of Health has also published a briefing for those operating in the NHS: Implementing a ban on age discrimination in the NHS – making effective, appropriate decisions.