Patients left in learning disability hospitals for years

Nearly one in five people in learning disability hospitals such as Winterbourne View have been there for more than five years, Community Care has found.

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Nearly one in five people in learning disability hospitals such as Winterbourne View have been there for more than five years, Community Care has found.

Although these facilities are intended for short-term assessment and treatment, patients had been living in them for 23 months on average. The client group typically involves people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviour or other complex needs, with places commissioned by the NHS.

Information gathered under the Freedom of Information Act from 32 primary care trusts, covering 247 patients, showed 18% had been in hospitals for five years or more and 3% had been resident for more than 10.

The longest stay was 20 years.

Read special report on long stays in learning disability hospitals

“It’s truly shocking,” said shadow care services minister Emily Thornberry. “It seems that primary care trusts have found an easy route for when people are difficult to place – they are just parked somewhere because people don’t want to address the issue.”

The spotlight turned on learning disability hospitals recently when BBC Panorama screened footage of alleged abuse of patients at Winterbourne View in Bristol, sparking a police inquiry, a serious case review and plans for a national inspection programme. After the broadcast, 86 experts and organisations called on the prime minister to end the use of learning disability hospitals citing “poor outcomes, often at very high cost”.

Anthea Sully, director of the Learning Disability Coalition, said the placements flew in the face of best practice guidance for people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviour.

“It raises serious questions about the quality of life that people are receiving; we have success stories about people who have quite high medical support needs living well in community settings,” she said.

“They are imprisoned when they have not done anything wrong,” said Keith Smith, chief executive of the British Institute of Learning Disabilities, which produces good practice on this client group. “They are losing all the opportunities that come with living with family and community and in many cases people will become institutionalised.”

The figures on length of stay are, however, a fall from the last time official data were collected in March 2010. The final annual Count Me In census of learning disability inpatients found 31% of patients had been in hospital for five years or longer.

But Smith said he would expect people to spend between three and six months in hospital for assessment and treatment, though he did not advocate time limits.

The length of time people were spending in hospitals suggested the treatment was not working, said Mencap head of campaigns and policy David Congdon.

But David Stout, director of the NHS Confederation’s PCT Network, said: “The only reason you would still be in hospital after that length of time is because there’s not a better alternative placement in the community.”

The Department of Health said it was aware of a variation in availability of suitable long-term placements for people with learning disabilities and would be taking action in the light of its review of the Winterbourne View case.

Derby City PCT, which had the second longest average stay for the seven patients it placed, said this reflected good data collection. “We have introduced a monitoring system for all of our placements and we believe that some of these historically long lengths of stays will not be occurring in future,” said Dave Gardner, head of mental health contracts and procurement for NHS Derbyshire, which covers Derby City.

In neighbouring Nottinghamshire, 11 patients spent on average only one year, three weeks in hospital, an outcome the PCT attributed to good case management by staff.

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