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BMA urges healthcare professionals to promote disability equality

12 June 2007

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In a report out today (Tuesday 12 June 2007) the British Medical Association (BMA) is calling on its members to help break down barriers to improve the healthcare outcomes for disabled patients.

The report, Disability equality within healthcare, is jointly produced by the BMA’s Equal Opportunities Committed (EOC) and its Patient Liaison Group (PLG). Cochair of the EOC, Dr Sam Everington, says:

“We already know from the Disability Rights’ Commission’s (DRC) 2006 Formal Investigation that disabled people, particularly those with mental heath problems and learning difficulties, are more likely to experience some major illnesses, to develop them younger and die from them sooner. Our report provides doctors with information on how the healthcare they provide to their disabled patients can be optimised and to develop more inclusive and flexible ways of working that meet their needs. It is essential that political will and resources support this approach.”

The 1995 and 2005 Disability Discrimination Acts compel the NHS and GP practices to actively promote disability equality. NHS bodies must also be able to demonstrate and report on how they do this through their required Disability Equality Schemes.

While doctors have an important role to play in promoting disability equality, the BMA report emphasises that everyone in healthcare, from senior NHS managers through to reception and administrative staff, need to be involved in making this happen. This includes ensuring that services are accessible and that policies and procedures do not discriminate against disabled people.

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Chair of the BMA’s PLG, Barbara Wood, explains that the attitudes of staff and the way they communicate with disabled people are vital. She says:

“It is essential that healthcare professionals and staff do not make assumptions about disabled people. They can sometimes be patronised, for example, by talking to their personal assistant or interpreter rather than to them. Patient care is more effective when a more holistic approach is adopted so that doctors can work in partnership with their patients.”

She added: “All health professionals and staff should receive training in disability equality. For doctors, consistent teaching should be made available at medical school and throughout their careers.”

The BMA report advocates moving towards the social model of disability within healthcare. This model highlights the disabling barriers in society, such as badly designed buildings, prejudiced attitudes, inaccessible information and a lack of flexible systems. Using the social model enables a broader understanding of how more accessible and responsive services can be provided to disabled people.

Recommendations in the report include:

  • The medical profession should take a lead role in actively promoting disability equality in healthcare service provision.
  • The Department of Health should continue to carry out equality impact assessments of their healthcare policies to ensure the needs of disabled people are taken into account.
  • Healthcare organisations that are responsible for planning and commissioning regional and local healthcare services should ensure that the needs of disabled people are fully considered.
  • Strategic health authorities (SHAs) in England, health boards in Scotland and local health boards in Wales should collect regional data on the health and access needs of disabled people within local populations and use to inform local healthcare planning.
  • SHAs and local health boards must ensure that healthcare organisations in their region are compliant with all relevant equality legislation, including the general and specific duties placed on public bodies by the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.
  • The General Medical Council and the Postgraduate Medical Education Training Board should promote more consistent teaching within undergraduate and postgraduate medical curricula. Teaching should highlight the concept of disabling barriers and the need for a more holistic approach to treating patients with impairments and should involve disabled people wherever possible.
  • The BMA and the royal colleges should encourage their members to participate in continuing professional development activities which will help to improve and maintain a doctor’s disability competence.