This month’s issue of Nursing Times focuses on learning disabilities, both from the perspective of general nurses caring for people affected by a learning disability and that of nurses working in the specialty itself.
I think it is fair to say that people with learning disabilities and the care they receive often fall off the political and media radar, as does the work of those dedicated to looking after this vulnerable group. One of the key issues that has emerged recently, as part of wider concerns over healthcare inequality, concerns the care they receive in acute settings.
People with learning disabilities die, on average, 20 years earlier than the general population but many of these deaths could be avoided by ensuring they have equal access to healthcare services.
Most general nurses are likely to care for patients with learning disabilities at some time but one of our articles highlights that these nurses may lack the knowledge and skills to respond to their needs.
Co-authored by Professor Ruth Northway, winner of the Chief Nursing Officers’ Award for Lifetime Achievement in the 2018 Nursing Times Awards, the article looks at what nurses need to know and what they can do to reduce inequities in the health and care of this patient group. Other articles discuss training adult nursing students to care for people with learning disabilities and how learning disability champions can improve acute care.
We are also taking a detailed look at learning disability nursing itself in the second of our new focus articles. In the year it celebrates its 100th anniversary the specialty faces two key challenges, according to those we spoke to – namely the well-documented decline in numbers of learning disability nurses and students, and also awareness among the wider profession and the public.
Worryingly, the number of learning disability nurses on the Nursing and Midwifery Council register has fallen steadily from nearly 19,000 in 2013 to 17,142 in September last year. In June 2018 the number employed in the NHS in England hit a record low of 3,192 – representing a drop of more than 40% in less than a decade.
What I find most frustrating about this is that people knew it was happening, with persistent warnings over the last few years. As ever, only now that a crisis very much looming is something being done at a strategic level – or at least promised in the NHS Long Term Plan.
However, while the sector faces many challenges, there are also some positives. Nursing Times has identified a number of universities around the country that are looking into starting or rebooting their learning disability nursing courses – look out online for our story on this.
There are some great advocates out there for learning disability nursing, some of them quoted in this month’s issue. But their passion and skills must be backed with appropriate and urgent action, so the specialty regains a firm footing as it enters its second century. It is the very minimum that people with learning disabilities themselves deserve.