Care services minister Ivan Lewis has admitted there is “systemic indifference” towards people with learning difficulties in the health service after a report accused the NHS of “institutional discrimination” against them.
The government has announced an independent inquiry following the report by Mencap, which said a “fundamental lack of understanding and respect” towards people with learning difficulties within the NHS was leading to their neglect and premature death.
The Mencap study detailed the cases of six people with learning difficulties who it said had died unnecessarily because they were seen as a low priority within the health system. It said many healthcare professionals were ignorant of behaviour expressed to indicate distress by people with learning difficulties and many did not consult or involve their families.
Speaking in a television interview, Lewis said the “deeply disturbing findings” in the report seemed to indicate a type of “systemic indifference”. He said there was good practice in some areas but in others attempts to change the system had “fallen short”.
Health secretary Patricia Hewitt said the inquiry would examine the six deaths and any wider implications that would need to be considered nationally. She said the findings were shocking given the abuse and neglect revealed over the past year in NHS long-term care settings for people with learning difficulties in Cornwall and south London.
The Healthcare Commission also said it would review the six cases and any others identified to see if there were common themes and “systematic problems” in healthcare for people with learning difficulties.
Mencap welcomed the government inquiry but said the “fundamental question is whether this will bring about the cultural change in the NHS needed to stop people with a learning disability dying prematurely”.
Cases highlighted by Mencap include:
Mark, 30, (right) died eight and a half weeks after being admitted to hospital with a broken leg. Following the operation doctors missed the deterioration in his condition.
Emma, 26, was not treated despite being told she had a 50-50 chance of survival because doctors believed she would not co-operate with treatment. She died of cancer.