NHS failing to treat people with learning disabilities equally

The NHS in England is failing in its duty to provide people with learning disabilities with equal healthcare, which is leading to unnecessary suffering or even death, a government-commissioned inquiry said today.

The inquiry, chaired by Jonathan Michael, former chief executive of Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, said NHS services were failing to make “reasonable adjustments” – as required by the Disability Discrimination Act – for people with learning disabilities such as help with communication.

It blamed the failures on the lack of priority given to people with learning disabilities by the NHS nationally, “very limited” clinical training and education about the group, insufficient data on their needs and a “striking” lack of awareness in primary care.

Good practice patchy

It said there was good practice in healthcare for people with learning disabilities, but it was “very patchy” and mostly due to “the enthusiasm of energetic individuals”.

The report said there was no need for new legislation, but called for “nationwide systematic change” to ensure existing requirements were complied with.

It made 10 key recommendations, including:

  • The Department of Health should immediately amend the core standards against which NHS bodies are judged to include explicit reference to making reasonable adjustments for vulnerable groups, to comply with the DDA.
  • The DH should direct primary care trusts to commission services that make “reasonable adjustments” for people with learning disabilities, including regular health checks provided by GP practices.
  • Undergraduate and postgraduate clinical training must include mandatory training in learning disabilities.
  • The Healthcare Commission should “develop and extend” its monitoring of general health services for people with learning disabilities in hospitals and the community.

Death by indifference

The inquiry was sparked by Mencap’s Death by indifference report, published last year, which gave examples of six people with learning disabilities who it claimed died unnecessarily because of a “fundamental lack of understanding and respect towards people with a learning disability”.

The charity’s chief executive, Jo Williams, welcomed the report. She added: “The findings and recommendations will bring some comfort to the families in Mencap’s Death by indifference report, who bravely told their stories to highlight the widespread discrimination and ignorance.”

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