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The BBC's Fergus Walsh
"Standards have fallen short of what was acceptable"
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Wednesday, 29 March, 2000, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
Action ordered for disabled
Helen Smith
Helen Smith uses artifical limbs following amputation
The NHS has been told it must improve equipment services for the disabled following a meeting of health service chiefs and the prime minister.

NHS in crisis
The call from Health Secretary Alan Milburn comes after a damning report by the Audit Commission which said disabled people were facing long waits for equipment which sometimes turns out to be outdated, uncomfortable and unusable.

The quality of equipment services is unacceptably poor in many parts of the country

Andrew Foster, Audit Commission
Patients with artificial limbs, hearing aids and wheelchairs are among those being let down by the service, the watchdog's report says.

The Audit Commission adds that the current system is "a recipe for inequality and inefficiency" with small, fragmented services which lack leadership or clinical involvement.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and Mr Milburn met Audit Commission controller Andrew Foster and NHS bosses charged with modernising the service on Wednesday.

Mr Milburn said after the 90 minute meeting: "What we have got to do now is make sure the Audit Commission's recommendations are actioned in every part of the health service.

"It paints a very stark picture of frankly second-rate service in some parts of the country.

"Where things are not going well I'm no longer prepared to allow health organisations to sink or swim. We will put in external support."

In extreme cases, this could mean NHS managers being removed.


Mr Foster said after the meeting: "The Prime Minister listened with a great deal of interest and was looking to see what the Government can do about it.

"There's no place for anybody to hide after today's report."

Earlier, he said: "Several million people depend on equipment such as hearing aids, wheelchairs or artificial limbs, which have the potential to make or break the quality of their lives as well as the lives of the 1.7 million family or friends who care for them.

"While some areas are making good progress, the quality of equipment services is unacceptably poor in many parts of the country."

The report said:

  • One in four artificial limbs are poorly fitted
  • One in five wheelchair users say the equipment is unsuitable
  • One in three people with a hearing aid rarely use the device because it does not work well

Mr Blair's official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, took the unusual step of commenting on the report.

"The prime minister believes this report is unacceptable and illustrates precisely why we need to raise standards across the health service and address unacceptable variations in health care," he said.

"The report shows service standards varying from the unacceptable to the unreasonable."

Health minister John Hutton told the BBC that moves would be made in coming months to improve services for patients.

The whole area is a major problem

Nick Pelling, Disabled Living Foundation
Nick Pelling of the Disabled Living Foundation said: "The whole area is a major problem. It is a problem of funding but also of administration between health services and social services."

James Strachan, chief executive of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, said: "New technology can revolutionise the lives of disabled people.

"Sadly this report shows that unless equipment supplied by the NHS and Social Services is both modernised and properly funded, it will be a revolution that passes most people by."

James Ford, campaigns officer at disabled people's charity Scope, said: "Disabled people have had poor service, unreliable equipment and faced a culture of dependence, a waste of human resources and waste of equipment for years.

"We are pleased that an influential body has finally recognised these failings and urge Government action."

Stephen Thornton, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents health authorities and NHS trusts, said: "We accept that over the last few years there has been relatively little top management or clinical management time and resource devoted to this important area of care.

"That is because we have been too busy working on other pressing priorities."

He blamed long-term under-funding of the NHS and the drive for a "cheap service not an effective one".

Health minister John Hutton said: " I am also pleased to be able to confirm that we will make 14m available from 1 April for powered wheelchair and voucher schemes within NHS wheelchair services."

He said a number of recent schemes were addressing problems highlighted in the report, including a 4m investment in 2000/01 to modernise NHS hearing aid services.

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02 Sep 99 | Health
NHS rationing: The key areas
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