Learning disability nursing leading the way

 Catherine Best 6 Dec 2019

As Learning Disability Nursing celebrates its centenary, Yorkshire and the Humber Board Chair Catherine Best writes about the significant threat of a dwindling workforce hanging over this vitally important field of nursing.

On 28 November the Royal College of Nursing, in partnership with NHS England, held an event to celebrate 100 years of learning disability nursing in Leeds. The event brought together a plethora of healthcare professionals, including  nurses from all four fields, nursing support workers, managers, academics and those with lived experience to recognise the unique contribution that learning disability nurses make to the care of those with learning disabilities and their families; making the world a safer place in which they can live, grow, work and enjoy life to the full. 

In 2006 the United Nations (UN) published the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The UK government agreed to abide by this convention in 2009 and was subject to a periodic review of its progress in August 2017. Following on from this the UN published a report, commonly known as ‘Concluding Observations’ which identified the UN’s main areas of concern and made multiple recommendations, including those which sought to eliminate the significant restrictions imposed on those with a learning disability. The key issues of which, are identified in the document ‘How is the UK performing on Disability Rights’. In 2019, the UK government published its response to the recommendations arising from this review, which is more generic in its response and, interestingly, does not identify actions specifically related to those living with a learning disability. 

Statistical data shows that in the UK there are approximately 1.5 million people with a learning disability, with 1.2 of these living in England alone. NMC figures indicate that up to March 2019 there were 17,125 registered learning disability nurses on the register a drop of 1,421 since March 2015. This decrease in the number of learning disability nurses cannot be indefinitely sustained; action is needed not only to reverse the trend but to encourage more students to come on board. 

But what is the history surrounding this vital role and what is the future of a specialism that is drowning in a sea of nurse shortages, a potential reduction in learning disability courses and is already struggling to support the healthcare needs of a population who in accordance with the NICE Guideline ‘Care and support of people growing older with learning disabilities’ intrinsically experience ‘a poorer health profile than the general population’.

The changing landscape of learning disability nursing described in the RCN publication 100 years of Learning Disability Nursing highlights the growing commitment to a profession that has always put the needs of those with a learning disability and their families first and yet these nurses often feel undervalued regarding their contribution. The Foundation of Nursing Studies (FONS) in their publication ‘Celebrate Me’ has sought to challenge this injustice.

Furthermore, with half of universities in England considering axing learning disability courses, and new data from the RCN declaring that the number of learning disability nurses employed within NHS inpatient and secure units has dropped by almost 60% in 10 years, is it time that something needs to be done to address this crisis?

With public concern over nurse staffing levels taking a front row seat, and concerns by nurses that care is left undone, the nursing profession is on the brink and yet everyday patients and their families benefit from the commitment of nurses who challenge the increasing threat to patient care, nursing practice and the health and wellbeing of nurses themselves. 

If you haven’t done so, please sign our petition to make the hospitals, the care homes, indeed all clinical practice areas safer for all those in need of your care and support. Signing the petition is one way in which you can become involved, and there are so many more, including becoming an e-campaigner. By sharing your experiences of the effect of inadequate staffing levels with the RCN, you can contribute to a wealth of nursing history, at a time when you are feeling the pressure the most. When care is left undone as evidenced in the RCN report Staffing for Safe and Effective Care: Nursing Against the Odds and you still go home exhausted, is it time to take action? The long-term existence of learning disability nursing, indeed all nursing and the services we provide, is already under severe pressure; a threat, which cannot be ignored. By taking action now you can make a difference. 
Catherine Kelsey

Catherine Best

Nursing Lecturer, University of Bradford

Catherine is a nursing lecturer at the University of Bradford and is module leader for the Advanced Physical Assessment and Clinical Decision Making Skills module.

Her contribution to nursing has been recognised by being awarded the title of Queen's Nurse by the Queen's Nursing Institute and becoming a nominated member of Sigma Theta Tau International.

Page last updated - 06/04/2020