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Guardian concludes at least 74 people with learning difficulties have died because of poor care

Joint investigation by Mencap and the Guardian follows up on report Death by Indifference

Aime Oliver

3 January 2012

An article in today’s Guardian, NHS accused over deaths of disabled patients, concludes that at least 74 people with learning difficulties have died in the last decade because of poor care and "institutional discrimination" among doctors and nurses.   In 2007 Mencap published a report, Death by Indifference, which revealed a picture of institutional discrimination in the NHS against people with severe learning disabilities, particularly where there is the added complication of limited communication skills. Today’ s article, published with reference to a number of cases indentified by Mencap, suggests that the picture has not changed significantly since the 2007 report was published.

To end discrimination in the NHS and ensure people with a learning disability receive the same quality of care as the rest of the population, Mencap is calling for:

  • Annual health checks to become a permanent part of the GP contract to ensure early detection of health conditions, not agreed on an annual basis as now.
  • All health professionals to act within the law and get training around their obligations under the Equality Act and Mental Capacity Act so that they can put this into practice when treating patients with a learning disability.
  • Regulatory bodies, such as the GMC, to conduct rigorous investigations and deliver appropriate sanctions where health professionals fail in their obligations to patients with a learning disability.
  • For the NHS complaints process to be overhauled.
  • For all hospitals to sign up to Mencap's Getting it right charter

Leigh Day and learning disabled patients

Specialist clinical negligence and human rights lawyers at Leigh Day have been working with Mencap in its campaign to raise the standards of care offered to learning disabled patients. The firm has represented the families of a number of learning disabled people who have died whilst in the care of the NHS. These include Kyle Flack who died of asphyxiation when his head became jammed in the metal frame of his hospital bed, and Aime Oliver, who died partly because of a lack of specialist help and knowledge of the special needs relating to her condition.  Sadly today’s findings reflect those of a number of official inquiries in recent years all of which have concluded that good health care for people with learning difficulties is often unobtainable. 

Alison Millar, who represented the family of Aime Oliver, said:

"Sadly, The Guardian's article corresponds with our experience.  We regularly hear of cases where doctors or nurses have failed to respond to the needs - sometimes basic needs - of individuals with learning difficulties, leading to the care of these patients being badly compromised.  It is shocking that, despite the various inquiries that have been conducted, patients with learning difficulties are still being let down by our NHS in this way.  All NHS patients deserve the right to be treated appropriately and in a way commensurate with human dignity.  It is vital that people with learning difficulties, who may be less able to communicate their needs, and their family and carers who know them well are properly listened to."

Frances Swaine, who acted for the family of Kyle Flack, said:

"It is quite disgraceful that Mencap are still able to point to institutional discrimination against patients with learning disabilities, long after their Death by Indifference Report.  Aside from the training for clinicians that must have accompanied the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act, and the understanding of the reasonable adjustments that must be made when dealing with patiemts who have a disability, it is simply not acceptable for those with learning disabiliites to be treated so differently to those without when it comes to medical treatment.  Hospital Trusts should look carefully at their training programmes and ensure that their doctors and nursing staff are appropriately trained from their arrival in post."

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