Warning not to overlook the physical health problems of people with learning disabilities

There needs to be a greater awareness of how physical health problems can affect adults with learning disabilities in order to prevent them from dying prematurely, a Lancashire health committee has heard.

Tuesday, 26th November 2019, 9:29 am
Updated Tuesday, 26th November 2019, 9:30 am
More people with a learning disability in Lancashire are regularly seen by social care workers than NHS staff

The county’s health and wellbeing board was told that life-threatening conditions risk being overlooked if medics and social care staff do not see past a person’s disability to spot any underlying complaints.

The meeting heard that support staff are sometimes ill-equipped to identify physical problems - and can be ignored by medics even if they do.

Healthwatch Lancashire chief executive David Blacklock said that he had been involved in reviewing the death of a woman in her 50s who lost her life as a result of a “completely preventable” bowel condition.

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“Care staff weren’t listened to by medical professionals - even though they were saying quite strongly that the person in their care was not normally like this,” he explained.

Members were told that six times as many people with learning disabilities in Lancashire are being dealt with by social care workers as NHS staff.

Rachel Snow-Miller, director of commissioning for learning disability services at the Lancashire and South Cumbria integrated care system, said: “These staff are at the forefront of identifying any deterioration in a person’s health.

“But the carers of [a man elsewhere in the country] who died from untreated constipation were allowing him to have a burger and chips every night. They weren’t giving him healthy options, because their view was that it was his choice.”

As part of a nationwide programme, Lancashire is currently clearing a backlog of reviews into the deaths of people with learning disabilities to see if any lessons can be learned.

UK-wide statistics from 2015 indicated that adult males with learning disabilities die, on average, 23 years earlier than the other men. Across the country, only 58 percent of the learning disability population have had the annual health check which is recommended for them.

There were gasps from committee members when they heard that the national review of learning disability deaths found that 19 people had been issued with a “do not resuscitate” notice - simply as a result of having that learning disability.

However, the meeting was told that there were examples which demonstrated that Lancashire was moving towards the “reasonable adjustments” which should be made for individuals with learning disabilities - with Blackpool Teaching Hospitals and Lancashire Teaching Hospitals singled out for praise.