Dan Parton cutA survey of GPs has overwhelmingly called for mandatory training in learning disabilities for health professionals – now Dan Parton says it just has to happen.

Health inequalities in mainstream health settings are still all too often a reality for people with learning disabilities. Mencap’s reports ‘Death by Indifference’ and ’74 Lives and Counting’, published in 2007 and 2012 respectively, highlighted the problems people with learning disabilities can face and the tragic outcomes that can result.  Those reports were meant to act as a wake-up call, but people with learning disabilities still experience poor health outcomes. 

Last year’s Confidential Inquiry into the premature deaths of people with learning disabilities (CIPOLD) found that many are dying unnecessarily due to failings in healthcare – up to 1,200 per year, according to Mencap.

The reasons for this are well known. Things like diagnostic overshadowing, where symptoms of illness are mistaken for a part of a person’s disability, are relatively common. People with learning disabilities also often struggle to have their illnesses investigated, diagnosed and treated to the same extent as other people, according to the CIPOLD’s findings. 

That said, the situation is gradually improving. There are initiatives and schemes around the country that are working to address healthcare inequalities for people with learning disabilities, such as healthcare passports, which give details of a person’s conditions and medications, as well as information on their interests and preferences. There are many other examples of positive initiatives, some of which are detailed in these features: Getting equal and Clearing the barriers.

But there is more that can be done, and that includes making training in learning disabilities mandatory for health professionals. A recent survey of GPs for Mencap’s ‘Getting It Right – From The Start’ project found that 93% wanted mandatory training introduced for all health professionals. 

It would seem a no-brainer, given the prevalence of learning disabilities in the UK – some 1.2 million people and rising – yet relevant training for health professionals is often scant, unless they choose to specialise in learning disability care.

Introducing mandatory training would help to address some of the issues, noted above, that are borne of a lack of knowledge of learning disabilities. That training should not just be on medical issues, but also the practical side, such as how to communicate with people with learning disabilities and professional obligations under laws such as the Mental Capacity Act.

Likewise, non-medical staff who work in healthcare settings – receptionists etc – should also receive basic training. They are very often the first people to come into contact with a person with a learning disability when they go into healthcare settings, and can do a lot to help them through such things as the appointment process and resolving any questions they may have.

While effective training would not address all of the causes of healthcare inequalities that people with learning disabilities can experience – they are many and complex – it would doubtless raise standards and help to address the scandalous statistic that people with learning disabilities die, on average, 16 years earlier than their non-disabled peers.

Now pressure has to be applied to the relevant training bodies to ensure learning disability issues are included in their courses. The will is evidently there, so surely the way must also be found?