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Significant boost to learning disability and mental health nurses needed, says HEE chief

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Learning disability and mental health nursing will both require significant boosts to the workforce, as part of plans to create tens of thousands of additional clinical posts in the next 10 years, the head of the national workforce body has told Nursing Times.

In draft workforce plans unveiled yesterday by Health Education England, it was highlighted that, while the overall number of nurses working in the NHS had gone up in the past five years, the size of the NHS’s learning disability and mental health nursing workforce had decreased.

Between 2012 and 2017, the number of learning disability nurses working in the health service decreased by 1,061, and the number of mental health nurses fell by 2,824 during the same period, said the report.

In March of this year, 16% of learning disability posts in the NHS were empty, and 14% of mental health nursing jobs were vacant.

“We need more nurses working in the mental health environment”

Ian Cumming

HEE chief executive Ian Cumming said that, while the plans did not include specific targets for the number of nurses needed in the NHS over the next decade, the entire workforce would need to grow – particularly learning disability and mental health nurses.

He noted that HEE’s Mental Health Workforce Plan, launched in August, had already estimated that 19,000 new mental health staff would need to be employed by 2020 alone, and this would include nurses.

“We need more nurses working in the mental health environment, we also need psychological therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists. We need to grow that entire workforce,” he said.

Meanwhile, Professor Cumming told Nursing Times it had been “extraordinarily difficult” to attract people into learning disability nurse training in the past few years.

To understand how to increase the number of nurses working in this field, he highlighted that HEE and NHS England were investigating the reasons for fewer people applying for training.

“We think in part it is because as we have increasingly changed the care model for people with learning disabilities – from being in institutions and hospitals to people being cared for in the community – the role has changed a lot,” he said.

He suggested the specialty was not as widely understood by the public as other fields were, such as adult or children’s nursing.

HEE and NHS England were, therefore, reviewing the nursing workforce – and what role allied health professionals would play in the future – to help inform decisions about how many learning disability nurses needed to be trained over the next decade, he said.

The new report estimated that the NHS will require 190,000 extra clinical posts by 2027, if nothing was done to reduce demand through service changes or improved productivity.

“We know the main driver for retention is improving flexibility of employment”

Ian Cumming

It outlines the steps being taken to increase the number of new staff in training to join the NHS in the next decade, such as the introduction of nursing associates.

The 25% increase in funding for placements for student nurses in 2018 would have a “major impact” on creating some of the potential 190,000 extra posts, said Professor Cumming. But action was needed to hold onto existing nurses and other staff, he said.

“It’s important to stress any changes we make in training nurses will not have an effect for four years,” he said. “The issues that need to be addressed now to make a difference are around keeping the workforce we currently have through a focus on retention – and we know the main driver for that is improving flexibility of employment.”

As revealed by Nursing Times yesterday, he acknowledged that some of the recent 60% cuts to HEE’s continuing professional development funding would need to be reversed as part of efforts to hold onto nurses working in the NHS.

Other immediate action included bringing back former nurses through HEE’s return to practice campaign and recruiting nurses from abroad by offering them training in the NHS while they work.

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