Nobody enjoys going to the doctors. But for people with a learning disability, there can be a number of further barriers and anxieties associated with accessing healthcare.
Obstacles can be receiving an appointment letter which is unclear and difficult to understand, or having to wait in a busy and noisy waiting room. Obstacles can be health professionals making assumptions about people with a learning disability, or failing to understand their individual needs. An obstacle may be that health providers don’t even know that someone has a learning disability so doesn’t adapt their approach. These can all lead to people missing out all together on the necessary checks, tests and treatments they need.
Which is why our Treat Me Well campaign calls on healthcare professionals to make the reasonable adjustments which can make a world of difference for people with a learning disability. These might be providing materials in Easy Read, offering slightly longer appointments, or a safe space to wait.
It’s also why, when we discovered last month that 45 per cent of people with a learning disability in England are failing to receive their annual health check, we called on the NHS to urgently address this. Not only because the health check is important in itself, but because it is an important gateway to accessing better healthcare overall.
The learning disability health check, which should be available to everyone with a learning disability aged 14 or older, is an important opportunity to regularly assess and monitor the overall health and wellbeing of patients by a GP.
It can include blood pressure and cholesterol checks, discussions about weight management, healthy eating and exercise, as well as other routine tests.
The obvious benefits are clear: monitoring the health of a person with a learning disability can help to identify any underlying causes for concern or treatment and can be an opportunity to influence healthy behaviours. A Health Action Plan is drawn up as a result of the consultation so that any decisions can be acted on.
But the advantages go well beyond this. We’ve heard from doctors that carrying out this check is a crucial way to get to know their patients. It can build trust so that the patient has more confidence in attending the doctors in future, and is more comfortable in a healthcare environment.
Importantly, it’s also an opportunity for people with a learning disability to opt into including additional information in their Summary Care Records, which act as a flagging system for when they go into hospital. It can explain to those treating them what reasonable adjustments they need.
Currently, around 1,200 people with a learning disability are dying each year because they’re not getting the care they need. Acute settings – for example, if someone is taken to hospital through A&E – can be particularly problematic and are where we see errors and failings time and time again. Being able to see on someone’s records that they have a learning disability and, for example, may need adjustments to the how they are communicated with, could make a significant difference to the care they receive.
While at Mencap we will support NHS England to continue improving uptake of the annual health check, we urge care workers to speak up and ask for them to be given to the people they support. Helping them, for instance, by speaking to the GP surgery to make sure they are on the learning disability register, receive a health check and have the relevant additional info added to their Summary Care Records. It could help to break down barriers and be an important step towards good health.
You can find out more at www.mencap.org.uk/dontmissout