NHS failings linked to early deaths of people with learning difficulties

Lawrence McGinty

Former Science and Medical Editor

37-year-old Gerald had learning difficulties Credit: Family handout

Muhammed is obviously a keen student - he's completing a post-graduate course at the London School of Economics and the text-books stand proud in his bookcase, amid the usual student clutter.

But Muhammed has recently turned his intellect to another cause - what happens to people with learning difficulties when they encounter the NHS.

It started last summer when his elder brother Gerald developed symptoms that disturbed the family.

Gerald, 37, had learning difficulties but was outgoing and happy, attending a centre in north London where he did some gardening.

Suddenly Gerald started sleeping most of the day. He had trouble remembering people's names - even his mother's. And he had trouble with his ear.

His family took to him to the local A&E - not once, but three times on successive days.

Staff there dismissed some of his symptoms because they thought they were related to his learning difficulties - even though his family told them they weren't.

Only on the third visit did they order a CT scan which showed Gerald had an abscess on his brain and despite three operations, doctors couldn't save him.

Muhammed told me he didn't know whether it would have made any difference if the abscess had been recognised earlier, but he felt strongly that if Gerald had not had learning difficulties, he would have been diagnosed earlier.

And that's the general conclusion of a research study published today by the Department of Health.

Researchers in Bristol investigated the deaths of 247 people with learning difficulties.

They interviewed families and doctors. The interviews were confidential so doctors could talk freely about possible mistakes.

And the researchers conclude that patients with learning difficulties die, on average, 16 years sooner than anyone else.

Not because they lead unhealthier lives but because of delays in diagnosing and treating the illnesses that kill them.

The charity Mencap estimates 1,200 people with learning difficulties die "needlessly" every year.

That's a scandal as big as the avoidable deaths at the Mid-Staffs Hospital happening every year.