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Focus on healthcare during Learning Disability Week

This week’s Learning Disability Week celebrates families living with a learning disability, their achievements and passions

19 June 2014

Mencap, the UK charity supporting people with learning disabilities, is hoping that it is this message that will challenge discrimination and stereotyping which so often leads to people with a learning disability suffering unequal access to services, including healthcare.

Learning Disability Week comes more than a year after the Department of Health published a Confidential Inquiry into premature death of people with learning disabilities (CIPOLD).

The CIPOLD report examined the circumstances of the deaths of 247 people with a learning disability between 2010 and 2012 and shockingly concluded that 37% of those deaths were avoidable.

The report identified a multitude of shortcomings in the healthcare provision of the people with learning disabilities who died, including delays or problems with diagnosis and treatment; and problems identifying needs and providing appropriate care in response to those needs.

The CIPOLD report concluded that many of the deaths could have been avoided if reasonable adjustments had been made to ensure that the needs of learning disabled people were properly identified and communicated among healthcare staff.

One of the key recommendations of the CIPOLD report was the education and training of professionals to “recognise their responsibilities to provide the same level of care to people with learning disabilities as to others, and not to make rapid assumptions about quality of life or the appropriateness of medical or social care interventions.”

During Learning Disability Week, Mencap is campaigning to dispel widely held prejudices  and assumptions about learning disabled people which continue to affect many aspects of their lives, including the provision of adequate healthcare.

Rebecca Davis notes that the team at Leigh Day continues to represent many individuals with learning disabilities, and their families, who suffer as a result of deficiencies in healthcare, and are very aware of the risks of assumptions being made by healthcare professionals regarding the needs of those individuals.

In some cases the person’s learning disability and difficulties in communication have been a focus of concern for health professionals to the exclusion of all other conditions, including serious physical symptoms. This has had profound consequences, particularly in an emergency or acute care setting. 

In one case a woman with a learning disability died as a result of a pulmonary embolism. Shortly before she died, she had attended her local hospital with her carer complaining of shortness of breath and chest pain, only to be referred to a psychiatrist instead of a respiratory physician who could have investigated her real physical symptoms, which were later established to be caused by her pulmonary embolism.

The problem of healthcare professionals making assumptions about a learning disabled patient’s needs is also seen outside an acute care setting.

In another case, Leigh Day acted on behalf of an eighteen year old woman who has a learning disability associated with a brain injury she suffered at birth, who was presumed by health professionals to not have capacity to have and look after a child, despite a clear expression by our client that she wished to have a family and evidence from other professionals that with proper support there was no reason why she could not.

It is hoped that the messages being promoted during Learning Disability Week will encourage healthcare professionals to avoid making assumptions about the needs of people and families living with a learning disability as such assumptions can affect healthcare decisions relating to learning disabled people which can have a profound, sometimes life-threatening, impact.



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