THE LIVES OF PATIENTS with a learning disability are being put at risk because the number of specialist nurses caring for them has flatlined, says the Royal College of Nursing.

The number of learning disability nurses in England has risen by just 22 in the last three years, despite numerous warnings from experts.

The Royal College of Nursing is calling for the government to urgently re-double its efforts to address the dire shortage of learning disability nurses. England’s chief nurse Ruth May admitted last week that numbers were not growing fast enough.

Delivering successful care to learning disability patients is challenging due to communication difficulties, and the impact of poor care can be devastating. People with learning disabilities are more likely to have serious health conditions, like congenital heart disease or respiratory illnesses, and die around 25 years sooner than the general population.

In its new report, Connecting for Change: for the future of learning disability nursing, the RCN is calling for:

  • A dedicated learning disabilities minister or commissioner in each of the four nations to protect the care and rights of patients with learning disabilities, echoing the calls made by charities in Scotland.
  • Clear and accurate data about the learning disabilities nursing workforce to aid recruitment and retention. There is no official data for learning disability nurses working outside the NHS.
  • Adequate funding for learning disability services provided in social care.
  • More funding for the education and training of learning disability specialist nurses.
  • A strategy to prevent the reoccurrence of the abuse experienced by people with learning disabilities, such as the cases highlighted at Winterbourne View and Whorlton Hall Hospitals which were closed as a result.

Jonathan Beebee, Professional Lead for Learning Disability Nursing at the Royal College of Nursing and one of the authors of its new report, said: “The shortage of nursing staff could be putting the lives of people with learning disabilities at risk.

“It’s scandalous that in this day and age people with learning disabilities are still dying on average 25 years sooner than the general population. Specialist care can transform their lives. Investment is much needed to encourage people to train as a nurse and take the career path into learning disability nursing.

“Learning disability nursing is incredibly rewarding but we struggle to recruit, and this is partly due to lack of recognition and identity for what learning disability nurses offer. The RCN has a key role to play in encouraging more students and newly qualified nurses to specialise in this area.”

At HM Prison & Young Offenders’ Institution Parc in Bridgend, Wales, the team of nurses created the UK’s first dedicated prison wing for prisoners with a learning disability or autism spectrum conditions. This allows them to look after vulnerable prisoners’ physical and emotional health away from the general prison population, as well as preparing them for release.

There are only about 17,000 learning disability specialist nurses in the UK. In 2018, the number of learning disability nurses working in hospital and community health services in England hit a record low – just 3,192 – a fall of 40 per cent in less than a decade. Since then, that number has risen to 3,214 – a rise of just 22.

But a further complication is that 85 per cent of the learning disability nurses work outside the NHS and therefore are not counted. The RCN is calling for a more detailed analysis of the existing workforce.

Last week, Ruth May told NHS Confederation’s annual conference that the number of learning disability nurses was “not increasing in the numbers we would like”, adding that it was a “fabulously privileged part of the nursing profession.”

* Download Connecting for Change: for the future of learning disability nursing here.

* Source: Royal College of Nursing