Specialist care in crisis

The RCN wants urgent action to attract more people to learning disability nursing as the number of students seeking to specialise falls

In May, the NHS Learning Disabilities Mortality Review published a report into 103 deaths. It found that in 13 cases the person’s health had been adversely affected by treatment delays, poor care, neglect or abuse. Overall, it showed that the life expectancy of someone with a learning disability lags way behind a person in the general population – almost 23 years for men and more than 29 years for women.

The findings are even more shocking in light of recent news that almost half of universities in England have discussed axing learning disability nursing courses, while the latest workforce data shows a 40% drop in specialist learning disability nurses since 2010.

Dame Donna Kinnair, Acting RCN Chief Executive, says: “Without the specialist support provided by registered nurses, more patients may end up in institutions, away from their families and friends and shut off from society – this bleak Victorian image is not what care should look like in the 21st century.”

Since the removal of funding for nursing education, the number of applicants to learning disability nursing degree courses has also fallen, making the programmes less financially viable to run.

Going backwards

Anete Ievina, a third-year learning disability nursing student, has concerns for what this means for society in the future. She is part of one of the last cohorts to come through one of three study centres at the University of Hertfordshire.  “It feels like we could well end up going backwards to institutions,” says Anete, who hopes to work with children with learning disabilities once registered.

“It’s all quite scary. I’ve had doctors come and find me while on placement in hospitals as they want someone who has the skills to support a person with a learning disability. And yet learning disability courses are being cut and we are hearing of more specialist nurses losing their jobs. It doesn’t make sense.”

To offer the best support to a person with a learning disability, you need a learning disability nurse

Zoe Robinson, a student on the same course, says: “The mortality review shows we can change the lives of people with learning disabilities. The loss of just one learning disability nurse has a ripple effect that will leave many vulnerable people without the care they need,” she adds. 

“Unless we preserve this field of nursing, there will be a terrible impact on all services across health and social care. Not only that, but where will learning disability nurses end up if the role becomes extinct?

“Learning disability nursing has always been extremely person-centred and focused on the individual. To offer the best support to a person with a learning disability, you need a learning disability nurse.”


A key priority

At RCN Congress in May, members voiced their  concerns about the dwindling state of learning disability nursing and voted overwhelmingly in favour of an emergency resolution calling for urgent action to protect this vital field. Work is now being taken forward by the RCN Learning Disability Nursing Forum. 

The RCN has developed costed policy options for the Government to consider to incentivise more students into nursing. It has also outlined serious concerns to Health Education England (HEE), and proposed a number of solutions, including:

  • a high-profile national recruitment campaign 
  • additional financial support to attract prospective nursing students
  • better investment in CPD
  • learning disability nursing to feature prominently in HEE’s forthcoming workforce plan.

Join the UK-wide Learning Disability Nursing Forum 


Did you know?

The RCN is supporting Treat Me Well – a campaign launched by the charity Mencap – that recognises that small changes can make a big difference to health care outcomes. It aims to transform how the NHS treats people with a learning disability. Find out more or read about diagnostic overshadowing in our RCN Bulletin article. 

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