hospitalHospital patients with learning disabilities face longer waits and mismanaged treatment due to a failure to understand them by nursing staff, a new report has claimed.

The report found that the main barrier to better and safer care was a lack of effective flagging systems, leading to a failure to identify patients with learning disabilities in the first place.

There was also a lack of understanding by nursing staff about learning disability issues and a lack of clear lines of responsibility and accountability for the care of each patient with learning disabilities.

The report, ‘Identifying the factors affecting the implementation of strategies to promote a safer environment for patients with learning disabilities in NHS hospitals’, published in the Health Services and Delivery Research journal, found one example where a patient who had problems making herself understood was accused of being drunk by hospital staff.

The study included questionnaire surveys, interviews and observation with senior hospital managers, clinical staff, patients and carers in all types of areas within hospitals in the NHS.

As a result of the findings, the report makes several recommendations, including having specialist learning disability liaison nurses and ward managers with specific responsibility to advocate on behalf of patients with learning disabilities.

It also recommended that the NHS investigate practical and effective ways of flagging patients with learning disabilities across services and within hospitals while also implementing procedures to ensure that family and other carers are involved in the care of such patients.

Dr Irene Tuffrey-Wijne, co-author of the report and a senior research fellow in nursing at the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education, a partnership between St George’s, University of London and Kingston University, said: “People with learning disabilities are largely invisible within the hospitals, which meant that their additional needs are not recognised or understood by staff.

“Our study found many examples of good practice, but also many examples where the safety of people with learning disabilities in hospitals was at risk.

“The most common safety issues were delays and omissions of care and treatment. Some examples come down to basic nursing care like providing enough nutrition but other serious consequences were also seen in our study.

“These included delays in clinical investigations and treatment by staff unclear or unaware of what to do in certain situations when patients had trouble expressing their consent or opinions or lacked an understanding about what was required from them.”

The study was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research Programme.

The other co-authors were Baroness Sheila Hollins, a former president of the British Medical Association and professor at St George’s, University of London and Christine Edwards, professor in Kingston University’s Faculty of Business and Law.