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Mencap survey reveals poor treatment for learning disabled patients

An opinion poll of 1,000 NHS staff has shown some disturbing statistic

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28 June 2010

Learning disability charity Mencap has published the results of an opinion poll it commissioned that was carried out on 1,000 NHS staff.  The poll was commission to coincide with the launch of the charity’s new campaign, Getting it right. The campaign is aiming to improve healthcare for people with a learning disability. People with a learning disability experience poorer health and poorer healthcare than the general population.

Mencap’s poll revealed that almost half of doctors (46%) and a third of nurses (37%) say that people with a learning disability receive a poorer standard of healthcare than the rest of the population. Nearly four out of ten doctors (39%) and a third of nurses (34%) say that people with a learning disability are discriminated against in the NHS.

Mencap's Death by indifference report in 2007 highlighted six cases of people with a learning disability who died unnecessarily in NHS hospitals. Since then the charity has received more accounts of tragic cases from families and carers. The publication of Death by indifference led to a rare joint review by the health service and local authority ombudsman, Six lives: the provision of public services to people with learning disabilities, which revealed ‘significant and distressing failures’. The report said that people with a learning disability experienced ‘prolonged suffering and poor care', and some of these failures were for disability related reasons. Hospitals were criticised for the inadequate care and treatment given to people with learning disabilities as well as the way they looked into complaints. Councils were attacked for failing to provide or secure adequate levels of health care, while local health managers working for primary care trusts were said to be struggling to plan services properly.

Mencap’s latest campaign is promoted the use of a charter by all healthcare professionals.  The charter’s main points are to: 

  • Make sure that hospital passports are available and usedMake sure that all of our staff understand and apply the principles of mental capacity laws
  • Appoint a learning disability liaison nurse in our hospital/s
  • Make sure every eligible person with a learning disability can have an annual health check
  • Provide ongoing learning disability awareness training for all staff
  • Listen to, respect and involve families and carers
  • Provide practical support and information to families and carers
  • Provide information that is accessible for people with a learning disability
  • Display the Getting it right principles for everyone to see
  • To make reasonable adjustments that can include allowing more time during consultations; understanding and using the patient's preferred communication method eg photo symbols; and using their hospital passports.


Leigh Day and health services for learning disabled people

The human rights team at Leigh Day has represented a number of learning disabled people who have died in hospital after receiving substandard or inappropriate care.  Most recently Frances Swaine represented the family of Kyle Flack, a young man with severe learning disabilities who died unexpectedly in Basildon Hospital after suffocating when his head became trapped in the rails of his bed.  The hospital was recently fined £40,000 + £10,00 costs following a prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive.

Healthcare professionals revealed to Mencap that:

  • more than a third of health professionals (35%) have not been trained in how to make reasonable adjustments for patients with a learning disability, which can often mean the difference between life and death
  • more than half of doctors (53%) and over two thirds of nurses (68%) said they needed specific guidelines on how care and treatment should be adjusted to meet the needs of those with a learning disability.

Frances Swaine, partner and head of the human rights team, says of the latest survey:

“Effective communication is key to the successful treatment of learning disabled people who have to go into hospital.  Time and time again we hear stories of people who are treated without dignity, respect or understanding.  The healthcare profession must take note of its duty to treat all people equally irrespective of their needs.”

If you would like to talk to a lawyer in the human rights team please contact us on 020 7650 1200.

Information was correct at time of publishing. See terms and conditions for further details.

Information was correct at time of publishing. See terms and conditions for further details.

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