The Royal College of Nursing is urging the government to “re-double” its efforts to address the “dire” shortages of learning disability nurses, which it says are leaving vulnerable patients at risk of harm.
In a new report – Connecting for Change: for the future of learning disability nursing – the college highlights how the number of these nurses in the English NHS has steadily declined from more than 5,000 in 2009, to around 3,000 in 2016.
Since then, workforce numbers have “flatlined” and, despite acknowledgement of the problem more recently from national leaders, have only increased by 22 in the last three years, stated the college.
However, the RCN said understanding the “true extent of the challenge” was complicated by the fact that 85% of learning disability nursing staff worked outside the NHS and so were not counted in data collections.
The report warned there was a “lack of a clear road map for the profession and career pathways” for learning disability nurses and that governments across the UK “do not identify how many learning disability nurses they need across health and social care settings”.
In addition, there had been a “steep decline” in the number of student applications and acceptances onto pre-registration learning disability nursing courses in England, noted the RCN.
“The shortage of nursing staff could be putting the lives of people with learning disabilities at risk”
The report goes on to highlight the “shocking” health inequalities that people with learning disabilities face, including a shorter life expectancy than the general population and higher risk of avoidable death.
It also flagged the “disadvantage and inequity” experienced by people with learning disabilities amid the coronavirus pandemic and how their death rate from Covid-19 had been up to six times higher than the general population.
The RCN stressed the importance of learning disability nurses helping to stamp out inequalities and highlighted how such nurses were helping to transform patient care.
Jonathan Beebee, professional lead for learning disability nursing at the RCN and one of the report authors, 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.”
He called for “much needed” investment 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,” added Mr Beebee.
“These specialist nurses sit at the heart of changes we need to see”
On the whole, the RCN urged the government to “re-double” its efforts to address the shortage of learning disability nurses.
The college called for the appointment of a dedicated learning disabilities minister or commissioner in each of the four nations, as well as more funding for the education and training of these nurses.
It said clear and accurate data around the learning disability nursing workforce was needed to support recruitment and retention.
It also wanted to see a strategy implemented to prevent the reoccurrence of abuse experienced by people with learning disabilities such as in the cases exposed at Winterborne View and Whorlton Hall hospitals.
Responding to the RCN’s warnings, Dan Scorer, head of policy at the learning disability charity Mencap, said: “These specialist nurses sit at the heart of changes we need to see – improving health outcomes and access to treatment for people with a learning disability, and investing in community services to reduce in-patient unit admissions.
“Governments, health and care agencies across the UK need to step up to meet the challenges the Royal College of Nursing has clearly set out.”
The Department of Health and Social Care has been contacted for comment.