The NHS is failing people with learning disabilities

The NHS is failing people with learning difficulties, according to an editorial published in the BMJ today.

The authors say the health needs of this group of patients often go unmet because mental or physical illness is incorrectly attributed to the person’s intellectual disability.

According to the authors, doctors are less likely to diagnose psychiatric problems among this group of people, even though in reality they are more likely to suffer from mental illness. They are also more likely to develop chronic disorders such as epilepsy or cerebral palsy.

They point to two significant reports from the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) and MENCAP which both highlighted widespread inequalities encountered by people with learning disabilities and/or mental illness.

They say these reports raise issues about the low priority given to the health needs of this group, the lack of appropriate training given to medical staff, the disregard for the views of carers and the misconceptions among many doctors about the value of the lives of people with learning disabilities.

Hope for improvements in treatment lies with the recently implemented Mental Capacity Act. They argue it should improve the care of vulnerable patients as it sets out a process for ensuring that medical decisions are no longer made in isolation and are made in the ‘best interests’ of the patient.

They call for improved communication and liaison between GPs, hospital doctors and intellectual disability services, and joint working between the medical bodies. They conclude:

“This may help to reduce morbidity and mortality and improve quality of life.”

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