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November 7, 2023

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Learning disability patients being failed in hospital, a report has revealed

The Health Services Safety Investigations Body (HSSIB) found there are ‘persistent and widespread’ safety risks when people with learning disabilities are admitted to hospital.

The watchdog carried out a national investigation and warned staff are not equipped with the skills or support to meet the needs of patients with learning disabilities.

The report references avoidable illness and premature death for those with a learning disability and said there is a lack of information about patient needs.

Credit: Unsplash by Greg Rosenke

Clare Crowley, Senior Safety Investigator at the HSSIB, said: “In the UK it is estimated over 900,000 adults have a learning disability. Each person with a learning disability will have their own experiences, their own way to communicate and will come into hospital with unique needs, which will require a tailored set of reasonable adjustments.

“What our investigation shows is that where systems and processes do not support staff overall, an ‘unrealistic reliance’ is placed on individual staff members working within hospital wards.

“We heard from staff that they are trying their best for their patients but don’t always have the time to meet needs in the way they would like and are not always equipped with the specialist skills and knowledge they need to assess and care for people with learning disabilities.

“If needs are not met, it can cause distress and confusion for the patient and their families and carers, and raises the risk of poor health outcomes and in the worst cases, harm.”

Calls for improvement in shared information 

The report identified a 79-year-old man, originally admitted with a deterioration of several health problems, who died following a cardiac arrest two weeks after being sent to hospital.

During his time in hospital the needs of the man, who had a mild learning disability, ‘were not consistently documented or met’ including hearing problems that meant staff struggled to communicate with him.

As part of its investigation, HSSIB also looked at the care provided in other places to more than 20 people with learning disabilities including acute hospitals, supported living, day centres and their own homes.

The investigation saw how each person had different and varying levels of needs and that if routines were broken some people would be ‘completely lost’.

It called for improved shared information about patients with learning disabilities, regular availability of a specialist learning disability liaison service and increased training for general staff.

Clare Crowley added: “The recommendations we have made are aimed at reducing the safety risks, tackling inequity in care, and supporting the delivery of safe care to people who may be at their most vulnerable.”

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