Humanising Healthcare

An Economic and Social Research Council funded research project dedicated to finding and sharing healthcare practices that enhance the lives of people with learning disabilities (including people with learning disabilities who are also autistic people).

NHS Carer

Scandals, inquiries and reports into Winterbourne View, Whorlton Hall, Mendip House, Slade House and Yew Trees Hospital have revealed the tragic consequences of dehumanising care for adults with learning disabilities and/or autism. Previous research has evidenced a number of stubborn problems within healthcare; including ignorance, indifference and diagnostic overshadowing on the part of professionals (where underlying health conditions such as constipation or epilepsy are missed and symptoms incorrectly attributed to learning disability/autism). Uptake of annual health checks, screening and follow up appointments are low and there is evidence of inappropriate prescriptions of psychotropic drugs. Despite previous attempts to promote empowering, person-centred and holistic care practices, many people with learning disabilities and/or autism are dehumanised by healthcare.

Prior to the pandemic, people with learning disabilities and/or autism already died 20-30 years earlier than their non-disabled counterparts. By Autumn 2020, people so-labelled were six times more likely to die from the virus than the rest of the population. The human worth and value of people with learning disabilities and/or autism have been devalued by controversies associated with the Clinical Frailty Scale, healthcare rationing and the blanket deployment of 'Do Not Resuscitate' orders. The failure to prioritise care homes, a lack of access to PPE and testing, and changing vaccination guidance, risk rendering people with learning disabilities and/or autism as expendable and disposable.

We believe that a new approach is needed; especially now, as we plan for recovery and renewal in a post-pandemic world. Therefore, we will develop the concept of 'Humanising Healthcare'; identifying principles and practices of empathy, dignity, compassion, kindness and recognition. We will investigate the cultures, conventions, systems, relationships and practices of a neurology service and a learning disability service. This will allow us to identify the ways in which these two distinct services and their practitioners deliver humanising healthcare. 

Our team of researchers with learning disabilities and/or autism, medical clinicians and social scientists have been meeting over the last 18 months to co-create this research project. First, we will write a literature review that captures the key priorities and determinants of health for people with learning disabilities and/autism. Second, we will identify ideas and concepts to understand humanising healthcare by reading medical humanities, disability studies, posthumanities and disability activism literature and discuss the merits of these ideas during co-production workshops. Third, we will implement an investigation of the healthcare experiences of 30 people with learning disabilities and/or autism through 300 days of observational research of a neurology service and a learning disability service and 120 narrative interviews with professionals, patients and family members. Fourth, we will analyse the observations and interviews, informed by co-production workshops and our theoretical resources. Fifth, we will identify healthcare practices - including referrals, assessments, diagnoses, clinical judgements, investigations, treatments, service management, commissioning, medical training and continued professional development - that are under-pinned by the principles of empathy, compassion, dignity, kindness and recognition. We will share these through a website, manifesto, healthcare toolkit, practitioner training materials, journal articles, conference presentations and co-production research resources, supported by an experts-by-experience advisory board and clinical and practitioner expert group. Finally, we will increase public awareness of the healthcare realities and aspirations of people with learning disabilities and/or autism through festivals, a digital exhibition, a social media campaign and podcast series

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How we understand being ‘human’ differs between disciplines and has changed radically over time. We are living in an age marked by rapid growth in knowledge about the human body and brain, and new technologies with the potential to change them.

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