The Disability Rights Commission today threatened legal action against the government under forthcoming disability equality laws after a major investigation uncovered widespread health service discrimination against people with learning difficulties or mental health problems.
The DRC’s 18-month Equal Treatment: Closing the Gap study found that both groups were more likely to experience major illness, develop serious health conditions at an early age and die of them sooner than other people.
Yet despite their poorer health, they were less likely to receive adequate treatment or be offered health checks, and faced barriers accessing services.
Investigators, who analysed eight million health records and studied one local health board in Wales and three primary care trusts in England, encountered “complacency” and “lazy fatalism” across health services with an assumption the two groups “just do die younger” or “just won’t look after their health”.
Disability equality duty
The commission has warned that it will take action against the government and health authorities if they do not build the report’s findings into their plans over the next year to implement the disability equality duty, which comes into force in December.
DRC director of policy and communications Liz Sayce said the government must embed the needs of both groups within its health inequalities programme.
She said: “Reducing health inequalities is not just about reducing inequalities between one area and another but between one group of citizens and another.”
Sayce also called for better training for staff, particularly to avoid “diagnostic overshadowing”, in which staff assumed all health problems were connected to psychiatric problems or learning difficulties.
The Department of Health has promised to convene a meeting of senior staff to work with the commission on a full response to the report, which will be published at the turn of the year.
Health minister Rosie Winterton said the government agreed with the “broad thrust” of the DRC’s recommendations and had already started to act.
“Last month we issued guidance to help local commissioners design services that improve the physical wellbeing of mental health patients,” she said.
“We have also allocated £42m in 2006-7 to primary care trusts to help them implement the Valuing People white paper.”
Reaction to study
Bert Massie, chairman, Disability Rights Commission: “Tackling health inequalities is high on the government agenda, yet there has been a deeply inadequate response from health services and government to target these groups.”
Andrew McCulloch, chief executive, Mental Health Foundation and Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities: “The report talks about the problem as if it was something new but we’ve understood that these groups have been vulnerable to poor health for decades, if not centuries. We would argue for public health programmes aimed at and tailored to the two client groups.”
Jane Harris, campaigns manager, Rethink: “We’ve all got bodies and minds, there’s just a question of whether the government can make the rhetoric about holistic care a reality. At the moment I don’t see where that is happening.”
David Congdon, head of campaigns and policy, Mencap: “We’ve been concerned for a long time that people with a learning disability get a raw deal from the health service. Most of it is to do with a lack of training and understanding of the needs of people with a learning disability. So often their conditions go unrecognised and undiagnosed so they suffer unnecessarily.”
Andy Bell, director of public affairs, Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health: “It largely confirms what we feared. There’s a sense in which people identified as having one particular problem don’t always get the care for other things.”