The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is demanding that the government urgently addresses the chronic shortage of specialist nursing staff as it is putting lives at risk.

It said it was "scandalous" that in this day and age people with learning disabilities are still dying on average 25 years sooner than the general population.

A new report, Connecting For Change, shows the number of learning disability nurses working in NHS hospital and community services in England has risen by just 22 in three years. 

Further reading

In 2018, the number hit a record low of 3,192 – a fall of 40% in less than a decade. Since then, it has risen to 3,214 – an increase of just 22 full-time equivalent posts in the NHS.

Shocking health inequalities

The report said that people with learning disabilities face shocking health inequalities that are difficult to comprehend in modern society. 

Learning disability nurses can address this by supporting people with learning disabilities to access primary and secondary health care. They can also promote communication between the person and their support and the health care setting.

The RCN said that some hospital departments have directly recruited learning disability nurses to have their expertise directly on their team. For example, neurology departments have recruited learning disability nurses and provided training to support them to become sapphire nurses, enabling them to work as epilepsy nurse specialists in clinics that commonly see people with learning disabilities. 

The report also discussed the role of learning disability nurses in supporting people who present challenging behaviours and people who have committed or are at risk of committing offences.

For example, there has been an increase in learning disability nurses working in prison settings. They ensure rights are promoted and met, provide adapted offending behaviour management programmes, and ensure that complex health needs are identified and met.

Dedicated learning disabilities minister needed

The College 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 and accurate data about the learning disabilities nursing workforce to aid recruitment and retention. 

The College is also demanding adequate funding for learning disability services provided in social care, more funding for the education and training of learning disability specialist nurses and a strategy to prevent the reoccurrence of the abuse experienced by people with learning disabilities in the past.

Jonathan Beebee, RCN Professional Lead for Learning Disability Nursing, said: “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.”

There are only about 17,000 learning disability specialist nurses on the NMC register in the UK, despite warnings from experts that the workforce requires urgent growth. 

Jonathan added: “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.”

Community learning disability nursing standards launched

The Queen’s Nursing Institute and Queen’s Nursing Institute Scotland have published new voluntary standards for community learning disability nurses in the UK that they hope will support and inspire new opportunities and approaches to education for community learning disability nursing practice across the four nations of the UK. 

The standards articulate the specific elements of advanced practice demonstrated by registered nurses who have completed a Community Learning Disability Nurse (CLDN) Specialist Practitioner Qualification (SPQ) programme. 

Angie Hack QN, Assistant Director of Nursing Programmes at the QNI, who co-ordinated the development of the new standards commented: “The standards reflect the current practice of the modern-day CLDN Specialist Practitioner, including specific competencies for this specialist area of practice. To develop the standards, it was essential to gain an insight into the challenges and experiences of learning disability nurses working in the community setting today. Extensive consultation and collaboration with experts by experience, Higher Education Institution (HEI) programme leads, and community learning disability nurses has therefore been undertaken in the development of the standards.  

"I would like to acknowledge the fantastic engagement, commitment and shared passion from community learning disability nurses across the UK who together promote best practice. These standards have already been recognised for ensuring best practice at a high level and promoting the voice of community learning disability nurses, as well as the voice of experts by experience, with a special thanks to Mr Lloyd Page."