Editorial Comment: Mencap study shocks but does not surprise

The Mencap study published this week highlighting the health service’s scandalous neglect of people with learning difficulties is the latest in a series of similar reports on institutional abuse.

But the fact that the revelations are, in some ways, no longer a surprise must not dull our senses to the truly shocking nature of what happened to the families concerned.

In today’s modern, supposedly universal and patient-centred health service, how is it that a young man of 30 can be allowed to die as a result of a broken leg? Why did he have to wait three days to see a pain team? And how come a 43-year-old admitted to hospital following a suspected stroke was allowed to go for 26 days without food before he died?

The NHS accepts that some of its staff need more training in dealing with people who have learning difficulties. But do they really need to go on a course to learn that you ought to feed people who are in your care or give pain relief to patients in agony?

It seems that there are health professionals who regard people with learning difficulties as members of some alien race which does not have to be treated with the same basic care principals as other people. What other explanation can there be for the attitude by some health staff that “it’s not our fault – you just can’t communicate with them” or the belief that people with learning difficulties have a higher pain threshold than everyone else.

It’s this ignorance that leads to a dehumanising of the system that results in the sort of institutional discrimination that Mencap is seeking to address in its latest report.

The Department of Health has reacted by agreeing to launch an independent inquiry into the deaths. Meanwhile the Healthcare Commission is working through its major programme of inspections of NHS facilities for people with learning difficulties which is almost certain to unearth more scandals. We must ensure that the current momentum for change does not slow down and, most importantly, that all these reports, inquiries and investigations actually lead to real change for those at the sharp end of services.

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Janet Snell

This article appeared in the 15 March issue under the headline “Shocking but familiar”

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