Learning disability nursing must be recognised as an “equal and valuable” branch in the profession, in order to safeguard its future for the next 100 years.
That was the view from both nurses working in the field and those receiving their care who were surveyed as part of a project to demonstrate the worth of the specialty as it marks its centenary.
“Let’s attack the doubters with positivity rather than defence”
The research by the Foundation of Nursing Studies (FoNS) comes amid growing fear about the dramatic fall in the number of staff and students.
Latest projections suggest the vacancy rate in learning disability nursing in England will almost double from 16% to 30% in five years’ time without action.
A report on the project – called Celebrate Me – gathered views from those on both sides of the frontline about the difference learning disability nurses make, and what can be done to arrest the decline.
It has been endorsed by England’s chief nursing officer Dr Ruth May, and the chief nurse at Health Education England, Professor Lisa Bayliss-Pratt.
In the foreword to the report, learning disability nurse Helen Laverty said the history of the specialty had been “littered with rumour, myth and prejudice”.
She said many wrongly believed learning disability nurses were “not real nurses” and that their jobs were centred around “warehousing” patients in institutions.
The Celebrate Me programme aimed to tackle these outdated beliefs by “writing the narrative” from the perspectives of nurses, patients and their families, said Ms Laverty.
“We own our own story and will make it one of equality, respect and future orientation,” she added.
“We are undervalued, unrecognised and a minority in the nursing field”
Those interviewed for the project told how learning disability nursing was the “only truly holistic field” of the profession, because its nurses worked with individuals “from cradle to grave”.
They said these nurses were delivering person-centred, values-based and holistic care to some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Learning disability nurses acted as advocates for their patients and worked to protect their human rights by using their specialist knowledge and skills, they said.
The actions of these professionals helped to stop people with a learning disability dying prematurely, the report heard.
One interviewee told the review: “Without a professional group with a specific and enhanced knowledge of their needs, the mental and physical health [of people with a learning disability] will worsen and there will be even more deaths of learning disability patients as a result of poor or inappropriate care.”
In addition, learning disability nurses were described as the “vital link” to ensuring the wider health system was set up in a way to best support this group of people and that reasonable adjustments in care were made.
On the question of how to protect the future of learning disability nursing, a number of key themes emerged from the responses.
The need to put learning disability nursing on an equal footing with the other branches of nursing and to strengthen its visibility came out loud and clear.
“We are undervalued, unrecognised and a minority in the nursing field,” one participant in the study said.
“Learning disability nurses play an important role in improving outcomes for people and families”
Greater exploration of the economic value of learning disability nurses and the money they saved the taxpayer through preventative work was also put forward.
The respondents called for an increase in the educational provision for learning disability nursing and said that student placements should reflect the varied nature of the role.
The CNO said the findings would be used to help in the delivery of the NHS Long Term Plan, which was published in January.
“As the facilitators of this project, the FoNS have delivered an exceptional piece of work, which has generated a number of new ideas and some valuable learning,” said Dr May.
“As we move towards implementation of the NHS Long Term Plan, we will use the outputs from this work to inform this vital area of nursing practice,” she said.
Meanwhile, Professor Bayliss-Pratt said HEE would “take stock” of the findings.
“Learning disability nurses play an important role in improving outcomes for people and families, so it’s hugely encouraging to see their valuable contributions recognised in this work,” she said.
She added: “We must all take stock of the findings in this report and ensure we champion this important part of the workforce, showcasing its vital contribution towards improving people’s lives.”
Dr Theresa Shaw, one of the authors of the report, said: “I encourage all learning disability nurses to celebrate from the rooftops about your amazing skills and commitment; let’s attack the doubters with positivity rather than defence.”