Inquiry into deaths in NHS care

Health secretary Patricia Hewitt is to set up an independent inquiry after a charity said “institutional discrimination” led to six people - including a Norfolk man - dying in NHS care.

Health secretary Patricia Hewitt is to set up an independent inquiry after a charity said “institutional discrimination” led to six people - including a Norfolk man - dying in NHS care.

Mencap called for the investigation into the “avoidable” deaths and pointed to what it called widespread ignorance and indifference in the health service to those with learning disabilities.

Among the victims was Mark Cannon, 30, who died eight-and-a-half weeks after being admitted to hospital with a broken thigh bone. His case and those of five other individuals are set out in Mencap's Death by Indifference report.

Mark's father Allan, from Barton Turf, near Stalham, says he feels desperately let down by NHS staff who, he claims, dismissed his son's distress and failed to give him medication for his epileptic seizures. He says Mark's death, on August 9, 2003, could have been avoided.

Mark suffered from severe learning difficulties, had very little power of speech and could not communicate with hospital staff. When his family tried to speak out on his behalf, they say they were discounted as interfering.

Mr Cannon said: “I truly believe they were ignoring Mark because of his disability. They ignored all his pain and anguish. He was frightened because he did not understand why he couldn't go home.”

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The report comes after Healthcare Commission inquiries found that people with learning disabilities were neglected and abused at NHS trusts in Cornwall and at Sutton and Merton.

Ms Hewitt said: “I was shocked to hear of these findings concerning people with learning disabilities, particularly in the light of the other cases that have come to my attention over the past year, such as the disturbing events in Cornwall and at Sutton and Merton PCT.”

Mencap chief executive Dame Jo Williams welcomed the inquiry. She said: “The fundamental question is whether this will bring about the cultural change in the NHS needed to stop people with a learning disability dying prematurely.”