A national recruitment campaign is needed to prevent the UK’s depleted learning disability nursing workforce from becoming “compromised”, the Department of Health has been advised.
The campaign should be accompanied by a detailed review of the career structure of the specialty, according to a report commissioned by the DH on the future of the learning disability nursing workforce.
It was submitted to the DH’s professional advisory board for nursing and midwifery nearly six months ago in July but the government has only published it this month.
The report said workforce, education, career and leadership issues needed to be “urgently addressed” to ensure that efficient use is made of the knowledge and skills of learning disabilities nurses. “Without this it is difficult to see how a compromised workforce can be avoided,” it warned.
Regarding workforce, the report said a decline in pre-registration training places for learning disability nurses, an ageing workforce in the specialty, a year on year reduction in the numbers employed by the NHS and a slow reduction in new registrants to the field each year were “all cause for concern”.
DH figures show the NHS learning disability workforce fell from 12,504 in 1995 to just 6,600 in 2009 – representing a reduction in the order of 53%, or 1,000 per year.
The report added that “little if anything” was known about the numbers of learning disability nurses employed in the criminal justice system or in the independent sector. The Royal College of Nursing estimates it to be around 2,500.
The report warned: “Simply, the dwindling number of learning disability nurses, caused by a combination of factors, will not be sufficient to meet the growing needs of some people with learning disabilities who will continue to need specialist support by the NHS, and a specialist nursing workforce.”
It also noted that continuing professional development for specialist disability nursing was rarely commissioned, if at all – a problem highlighted by the case of Winterbourne View, it said.
The home near Bristol was closed by private provider Castlebeck after it featured in a BBC Panorama programme broadcast in June. At the end of November police charged 10 people in connection with the abuse of residents with learning disabilities at the home.
The report said what was seen in the programme was “shocking and inexcusable” and highlighted the context in which some qualified nurses worked. This, it said, was characterised by nurses in “very isolated settings, with little peer support, little or no clinical supervision, and little or no access to continuing professional development, or a clear career structure to motivate this workforce”.
“In such settings nurses may often be found overseeing large numbers of unqualified support workers with little or no formal training,” the report said.
Bob Gates, academic and professional lead for learning disability at the University of Hertfordshire, chaired the group of specialists that contributed to the report.
Speaking to Nursing Times in September, Professor Gates warned that there would be “more Castlebecks” unless action was taken to halt the “mass exodus” of learning disability nurses.
The report’s findings have been endorsed by the Royal College of Nursing, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, Mencap and the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities.