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10 March 2011

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What are the key points of the Disability Discrimination Act that I should be aware of?

It has been estimated that approximately two-thirds of all doctors’ surgeries in some way fall short of the NHS guidelines and up to 40% of current GP stock would benefit from replacement in the next five years. While physical shortfalls cover a multitude of issues, such as room sizes and facilities, compliance with DDA legislation is becoming increasingly relevant. This is particularly so with the introduction of inspections by the Care Quality Commission and the proposed changes to the NHS over the next few years, which may mean many practices will need to look to stay at their present location for the time being, perhaps with upgrading and extensions.

The DDA has been around for some years and came into effect in October 2004 for existing buildings to which the public have access. It imposes a requirement that reasonable steps be taken to ensure that disabled persons are not treated less favourably. This act is, however, only enforceable by service user complaint rather than by inspection – so unless a particular issue with your premises is brought to your attention by a patient, there is no legal obligation or need to rectify this. However, doctors’ surgeries by their very nature will be used by those with disabilities, so you should be proactive rather than reactive wherever possible and take practical steps.

Examples of this may be in the provision of a lift to upper floors where patients have access, although clearly this can be an expensive option and not always practical in older converted buildings. If it is not feasible to achieve this either through a shaft lift or a cheaper platform lift, then ground-floor consulting rooms should be allocated for the physically disabled, ensuring there is suitable corridor- and door-width to aid access.

Some potential problems are more easily rectified, such as ensuring there is level access into the building using a ramp as necessary, and for automatic opening doors and a lowered section at the reception desk for wheelchair users. At a practical level, tannoys and signage can assist those with hearing problems; the use of Braille can hep those with sight impairment.

However, it is not always possible to physically adapt a building, and you may need to consider your policies and procedures for addressing problems, such as allocating a member of staff to assist patients with particular needs to ensure they receive appropriate attention and assistance while on the premises.

You do not mention if the PCT have raised specific concerns. But if so, you should listen to their concerns and evidence that you have considered these and offer solutions, or else valid reasoning as to why some issues may not be resolvable. Not all will be expensive and it is possible that there may be financial assistance available to assist.