Learning Disabilities & Autism Opinion

The importance of annual health checks

Dr Mark Brookes, Advocacy Lead, Dimensions

Dr Mark Brookes is an Advocacy Lead at Dimensions, which supports people with learning disabilities, autism and complex needs to live ordinary lives in their community. He explains why the annual health check is so important.

Everyone who has a learning disability and is over fourteen years of age is entitled to an annual health check. These checks are one of the best ways of making sure people with a learning disability stay safe and well.

Getting a health check is really important. At the moment, people who have a learning disability die much younger than people without a learning disability – about 25 years younger, in fact. The health check is meant to help people keep healthy and spot any health issues early.

Annual health checks are done by your GP. The check is meant to look at everything to do with your health: it should include a physical check, medication review, a mental health check and there should be an opportunity to ask about your health issues. Most good annual health checks take at least an hour.

In Dimensions, my colleagues are working on behalf of the individuals they support to get the health checks they need by encouraging GPs to make appropriate adjustments, but my concern is for people who don’t get this sort of support.

My experience of health checks has usually been very good. I have a good relationship with my GP practice. My GP checks everything to do with my health.

The pandemic has caused some issues with health checks. Many of them have not taken place at all this year. In fact Dimensions found that only a handful of people we support were offered a health check between March and July. This is very worrying. People who have a learning disability might have worse health because they’ve missed this important check-up.

In July, Simon Stevens, the CEO of NHS England wrote to GPs to say that health checks are a priority. This means they need to take place as much as possible, even though we’re still dealing with the pandemic.

I had my health check in October. This meant my check-up was 18 months after my previous one. I asked my doctor for a face-to-face health-check. I had already done a phone consultation about my diabetes. Doing an appointment on the phone was difficult. I wanted the doctor to be able to see me. For people with high levels of anxiety and limited communication skills a telephone health check is of very limited value.

I felt safe when I went for my health-check. The GP surgery wasn’t very full. The furniture in the waiting room had been moved to leave more space between people. This felt good.

My health check was shorter than normal, it only lasted for half an hour. The doctor checked my blood pressure and my medication, but he didn’t do all the checks I normally get. I felt like it was too quick and I wasn’t sure if that would mean the doctor missed something important about my health.

The doctor didn’t ask me about my mental health. I live on my own, so lockdown has been difficult. I wanted to talk about my mental health.

Data from Public Health England has shown that the death rate from Covid-19 of people who have a learning disability is at least four times higher than the general population. This is just one of the many ways people who have a learning disability have been affected by the pandemic.

I think annual health checks need to be prioritised. This means people should be given their health check as soon as possible. The health check should be face-to-face, not on the phone. It can be very difficult to communicate properly over the phone.

I understand that there is a lot of pressure on the NHS right now, but this shouldn’t mean people who have a learning disability are forgotten. These important annual checks will help to tackle the health inequalities people experience and prevent people from dying earlier.

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