Dan Parton cutThis week the government launched a mental health action plan with 25 measures that aim to help to put mental health on a par with physical health services. So what chance a similar action plan for health services for people with learning disabilities?

When Nick Clegg announced the government’s launch of the action plan on Monday, he hailed it as a move to bring mental health “out of the shadows”. It was a bullish move and one that I hope will come to fruition.

There is no doubt that the mental health action plan is long overdue. As someone who blogs regularly on mental health, as editor of Mental Health Today (www.mentalhealthtoday.co.uk), the inequality between mental and physical health services is an issue I return to time and again. Given how many people experience mental ill health at any one time – one in four of us is the oft-quoted figure – it’s nothing short of a scandal that the priority given to mental health services still lags behind that given to those services concerned with physical health. 

But I would argue that an action plan to address the inequalities people with learning disabilities face – in physical and mental health services – is just as necessary.

Since the demise of Valuing People Now nearly 3 years ago, there has been no national learning disability strategy. Instead, learning disability issues have been included along with other forms of disability in health and social care policy. But a feeling persists that learning disability issues are not being prioritised by government.

For instance, when the Confidential Inquiry into the premature deaths of people with learning disabilities (CIPOLD) report was published in March last year, revealing that people with learning disabilities die on average 16 years earlier than their non-disabled peers – and that more than a third of those deaths are down to people not getting the right healthcare – the government’s July response was muted. It took on board a number of the CIPOLD report’s recommendations, but mostly just reinforced existing best practice.

Given the scale of premature deaths – which Mencap says run at 1,200 per year – you would think that the response would have been a little more urgent and decisive. Would the response have been the same for any other group in society?

Since then, little has changed for people with learning disabilities in the healthcare system, and there is little indication that things will improve in the near future.

So what could be included in an action plan? Here are a few ideas:

Establish a national body to monitor and investigate the deaths of people with a learning disability

Provide more  specialist learning disability nurses, as increasing numbers of people with learning disabilities come into contact with the healthcare system

Raise the status of learning disability nursing, with more consultant nurse roles, similar to the one Jim Blair holds at Great Ormond St

Implement and audit the provision of ‘reasonable adjustments’ to avoid people with learning disabilities being at serious disadvantage

Provide more training for healthcare professionals in learning disabilities – including medical and practical aspects.

All these changes could make a real difference to the quality of healthcare that people with learning disabilities receive. Currently, it is often inconsistent, and stories of healthcare failings, such as those described in Mencap’s Death by Indifference and 74 Lives and Counting reports keep on coming.

While inequalities in healthcare are reducing – and it should be noted that there are some great initiatives across the country that are helping to address the problem – more needs to be done and government initiatives highlighting and tackling this as a priority would help to drive things forward. Whether those will be delivered is quite another matter.