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Improving quality of life for people with learning disabilities

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Published on 15 March 2023

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A collaborative research project across health, social care and academia helping to transform the wellbeing and hearing of people with learning disabilities across Sunderland, has been nominated for a health innovation award.

The project - Promoting Equity in Physical Health Screening - an initiative between the University of Sunderland, South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust and Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) - has been shortlisted for a Bright Ideas in Health Award.

The awards - now in their 18th year, organised by The Academic Health Science Network for the North East and North Cumbria (AHSN NENC) - celebrates the achievements of individuals and teams working within the NHS, industry and academia, who have provided services which have led to improved patient care, either through a technical innovation or through better service delivery.

The Sunderland partnership identified the growing concerns about the health of those with learning disabilities, who have a significantly lower life expectancy than the general population and are at higher risk of certain diseases including diabetes, hearing loss, cardiovascular disease and obesity.

The work has been nominated in the ‘Innovation and Improvement in Reducing Healthcare Inequalities’ category of the Bright Idea in Health Awards.

“It’s great to be recognised in these regional health awards and a celebration for us all,” says partnership member, Karen Giles, a Principal Lecturer at the University’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Wellbeing.

“Our partnership worked together to solve a problem and improve the quality of people’s lives. We took an idea that started as just a question and through the process of working with people locally, something positive has resulted.”

The partners’ work included strategies to make physical healthcare for people with learning disabilities across the region accessible and a positive experience, as well as reduce inequalities through initiatives such as pop-up clinics which offer health screenings, results and advice in a relaxed and familiar environment.

More use was also made of ‘near patient testing’ or Point of Care Testing (POCT) used within the clinics. This testing uses advances in technology that allows people to have laboratory tests done quickly and easily. This type of testing uses advanced and portable handheld instruments, which are less invasive than traditional methods, in many cases using a small drop of blood from a finger prick test – getting accurate results in a very short period of time that can be presented to the patient quickly, and often on the same day as their appointment.

There was also the inclusion of hearing screening in the pop-up clinics to show how quick and easy assessment can be. Every single person who attended had their hearing screened, and a range of conditions were found such as perforated eardrums, infections and possible hearing loss, which had not been detected prior to the screening.

Dr Lynzee McShea, a Senior Clinical Scientist in Audiology at South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust was the Audiology lead for this project, said: “I am delighted to be involved in this long-standing collaborative partnership, to raise the profile of the importance of Audiology and the improvement in quality of life for people with learning disabilities. We are privileged to see the difference the project is making on a daily basis, and we hope the recognition of our work on a bigger platform will now support us to share this work more widely.”

Ashley Murphy, Learning Disability and Autism Primary Care Programme Manager for Sunderland CCG and Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Trust, worked alongside the University and organised the pop-up clinics.

Ashley said: “Working in partnership with other agencies has been truly motivating and inspiring. We have seen some fantastic outcomes for people with a learning disability and I feel we are paving the way for significant change in regards to credible diagnostic measures for hearing assessments for w1some of the most vulnerable people we care for.”

Also working with the team is Linda Reiling, Learning Disability and Autism Regional Manager, working alongside the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS).

The University of Sunderland is one of the sponsors at this year’s Bright Ideas in Health Awards, which recognises innovators from across the region.