Page last updated at 00:01 GMT, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Will 'shocking' care be addressed?

By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

Investigators have criticised the standards of health care available to people with learning disabilities.

But will the joint Health Service and Local Government Ombudsmen report make a difference?

Martin Ryan
Martin Ryan is one of six patients whose cases caused outrage

The care Martin Ryan received was shocking.

The 43-year-old, who had severe learning disabilities, Down's syndrome and epilepsy, suffered a stroke at the care home he was living at in November 2005.

He was admitted into London's Kingston Hospital, but in the 26 days he was there until his death he was not fed.

The stroke had affected his ability to swallow, but it was not until more than a fortnight after being admitted that his medical team decided tube feeding was needed.

Staff at the hospital said they found it difficult to assess and treat him - Mr Ryan could not talk - and communication with his carers had broken down.

But just before he was due to have the operation to insert the feeding tube, Mr Ryan developed pneumonia.

He was deemed too ill to undergo the surgery and four days before Christmas he died.

His mother, Vera, accused the hospital of "starving him to death" and complained about the standards of care at the hospital - there was no dedicated facilities for stroke patients.

Medical experts could not say for sure whether the failure to feed Mr Ryan had caused his death, but they said "undoubtedly placed him at considerable risk of harm".


The lack of specialist services for stroke patients and leadership shown by doctors and senior staff was also criticised.

In short, the hospital had poor services which was compounded by the failure to properly deal with a patient with learning disabilities.

But this is not the only case where someone with learning disabilities had suffered at the hands of the NHS.

The ombudsmen report looked at five other cases. In one case, they ruled, the care given to man with learning disabilities contributed to his death.

There are also a number of other cases still under investigation and campaigners believe this is just the "tip of the iceberg".

Understandably, families and carers are now asking whether standards will improve.

The government has already published a three-year strategy, Valuing People Now, to improve services for people with learning disabilities across health, housing, employment and community care.

People are quite rightly being seen as individuals and this means they will be treated with more dignity and respect
David Rogers, of the Local Government Association

A new Public Health Observatory is being established to provide better data on the health of people with learning disabilities and feed into training courses for medical students and NHS staff.

Ministers have also promised an inquiry into premature deaths among people with learning disabilities.

But does this represent a watershed for people with learning disabilities?

The government hopes so as do councils which are so often involved in their care through their social services departments.

David Rogers, of the Local Government Association, said services are already reviewing the way they treat people and with the issue of personalisation of care at the top of the political agenda progress should soon be seen.

"People are quite rightly being viewed as individuals and this means they will be treated with more dignity and respect."

But Mencap, the charity which has campaigned long and hard on the issue, is not so sure.

Its response to the ombudsmen's report was noticeable for the fact that it did not think the investigators went far enough.

The charity said it wanted to see doctors named and shamed and is now threatening to refer some of those involved in the cases highlighted to the General Medical Council.

A Mencap spokesman said: "What we really need is for health staff to be aware that they have to provide people with learning disabilities the same quality of care as everyone else.

"It is not good enough for doctors to ignore their needs, but the only way we will get to that point is by making people accountable. They need to know that they will be in trouble if they don't."

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