Study: Hospitals struggle to meet learning-disabled patients' needs

Hospitals are ill-equipped to attend to learning-disabled patients' needs, leading to longer waits and mishandled treatment, according to a new study from the United Kingdom.

Researchers analyzed the state of care for learning-disabled patients using questionnaires, observations and interviews involving management, clinicians and patients within the National Health Service (NHS). People with learning disabilities, such as Down syndrome, face several challenges in a hospital environment, according to lead author Irene Tuffrey-Wijne of Kingston University and St George's, University of London, including:

Invisibility: Researchers used the term "invisible" to refer to learning-disabled patients whose special needs were not understood or recognized by clinicians. "Most people with learning disabilities are unknown to any health and social care services, and there is a lack of effective systems for communicating information about known learning disability between primary and secondary healthcare services," Tuffrey-Wijne wrote. "General practitioners did not routinely pass on information about learning disability, leaving hospitals unable to identify this population at the point of referral."

Lack of understanding among staff: "Staff lacked understanding of the fact that delays or omissions of care and treatment are a particular safety risk for people with learning disabilities, and of the reasonable adjustments that may be needed to ensure that they do not happen," Tuffrey-Wijne wrote, citing the case of staffers who mistakenly thought a patient, who had difficulty communicating, was drunk.

Failure to delineate responsibility: Care for learning-disabled patients was further complicated by lack of a clear hierarchy of responsibilities at clinic and ward levels, according to the study, which disrupted continuity of care.

To address these problems, Tuffrey-Wijne and her team recommended several interventions, including assigning liaison nurses and clinicians to advocate for disabled patients, as well as conducting research into how the NHS could identify learning-disabled patients and make family members and other caretakers a more active part of the process.

Disabilities combined with communication failures can also contribute to medication non-adherence, increasing the likelihood of an emergency room visit, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

To learn more:
- read the study (.pdf)