Improving wheelchair services

Wheelchairs provide a significant gateway to independence, well-being and quality of life for thousands of adults and children. They play a substantial role in facilitating social inclusion and improving life chances through work, education and activities that many people who do not need wheelchairs take for granted.

Yet the wheelchair services provided by the NHS often fall short of meeting the needs of wheelchair users. Too often wheelchair users find that their social, professional and leisure activities are not enhanced, but instead limited by the sub-optimal chairs that are supplied.

For people with complex, long term conditions, being able to access the right wheelchair, quickly, and with appropriate support, is of paramount importance.

Although there are plenty of examples of good practice and dedicated staff around the country, unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. People often find themselves waiting a long time for wheelchairs, or sometimes develop secondary health complications resulting from an unsuitable wheelchair.

  • There are currently around 1.2 million wheelchair users in the UK. Two thirds of them are regular users.
  • Many wheelchair users face delays in getting their chair – 70% waiting more than three months, 30% face a delay of more than six months with 15% waiting more than 12 months.
  • Up to half of all people who use a wheelchair will develop a pressure ulcer at some point during their life caused, in part, by ill-fitting or ill-equipped chairs. The cost of treating the worst cases of a pressure ulcer can be as much as 16 total hip replacements.
  • Public money is being wasted by supplying incorrect equipment or by delays in supplying the right equipment. For every 182 wheelchair users not able to work, the benefits bill can increase by up to £1m, whereas the positive economic contribution made when in work can be up to £4.7m.

In an attempt to redress that, NHS England is working with a number of people and organisations to improve the way all wheelchair users are supported.

From discussions at two national summits we know that there are some practical steps that can be taken to improve the commissioning and provision of wheelchair services. These include:

  • Establishing data collections to identify levels of activity and need
  • Exploring integrated health and social care needs assessments
  • Improving training for staff to help them offer advice about equipment
  • Offering help to commissioners to better understand wheelchair services
  • Creating practical user guides for service users and carers

From talking to wheelchair users and carers we know that when wheelchair services are poor, they can make it harder for people to reach their potential and participate in the world. When they are great they can truly transform a person’s life – building confidence and enabling independence.