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GPs have duty to protect abused vulnerable adults

Louise Prime

Thursday, 28 July 2011

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GPs must act on their suspicions that a vulnerable adults is being abused or neglected, insists BMA guidance published today. The BMA produced Safeguarding vulnerable adults – a toolkit for general practitioners at the request of the Department of Health in England, because it felt there was some ambiguity in this area.

The obligation on GPs and other clinicians to act to safeguard vulnerable adults includes identifying abusers, identifying systemic healthcare failures and reporting other health professionals’ poor performance. The guidance also explains how legislation protects doctors who speak out against abuse or neglect.

The situation with safeguarding vulnerable adults is different from child protection, explains the toolkit, partly because of the enormous variation in the capabilities of people classified as vulnerable – the term can include those with short-term illness or disability affecting their decision-making capability, such as people recovering from a stroke, as well as others who cannot be expected ever to look after any aspect of their lives.

The BMA stresses the importance of involving vulnerable adults in decisions about their care and treatment as much as possible, and of supporting their independence and quality of life. The toolkit gives several examples of how this can work in practice, including someone with early Alzheimer’s disease who wants still to live alone.

The areas that the toolkit covers include:

  • What is safeguarding?
  • Which adults may be vulnerable?
  • What constitutes abuse and neglect?
  • When should concerns about patient safety be reported?

Dr Tony Calland, chair of the BMA’s Medical Ethics Committee, said: “The way doctors deal with these possible situations demonstrates how complex caring for vulnerable adults can be. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution and each case needs to be judged individually. This toolkit will help to guide and support doctors in their decision-making.

“Our guidance also helps doctors identify which adults have the capacity to protect and promote their own interests, and which adults may need decisions made on their behalf.”

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