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Nurturing talent in learning disabilities nursing

Student nurse, Jade Silver, who won a recent award for innovation, is a great example of the highly talented individuals ready to join the learning disabilities workforce. But with recent research warning about cuts to services and resources, what does the future hold for those about to join the profession?

Anyone involved in learning disability nursing will have been heartened to hear the recent story of Jade Silver, the University of South Wales (USW) student who recently won a best practice award for coming up with an innovative, easy-to-read guide to care and treatment plans. Jade also picked up a Nursing Times Rising Star award for developing the guide and a sensory game for people with autism to help them overcome their tactile sensitivities to different textures.

It's clear that Jade is exactly the sort of committed, inspirational person the profession needs in learning disabilities nursing jobs . Her approach and dedication to sharing best practice will make her a desirable candidate for a learning disability placement when she graduates at the end of the year. However, as with many areas of the NHS, this will be against a backdrop of extreme pressure on services across the UK. 

In November leading mental health charity Mencap warned that a shortage of learning disability nurses was putting thousands of lives at risk. And more recently, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has published a survey of nurses that raises serious concerns about the impact that cuts are having on the 1.5 million people in the UK who have learning disabilities.

Mencap's research revealed that 42% of NHS acute trusts don't have a learning disability liaison nurse. According to the charity, on average trusts have just 30 hours of learning disability cover and no trust has 24-hour cover. It’s clear that without additional funds channeled into mental recruitment and retention, the service could be at the point of disaster.

The RCN survey found that 71% of learning disability nurses have seen cuts to services and 50% are concerned for the safety of patients. The College cites official statistics that show 21% of learning disability nursing posts in the NHS have been lost since 2010. "These nurses are at the forefront of health and social care integration, and need to be valued and supported," said Dr Peter Carter, RCN Chief Executive and General Secretary.

The good news is that transforming care for people with learning disabilities is one of the 10 priorities in the NHS England 2015/16 business plan, which follows on from the Five Year Forward View published in October last year. In January 2015, Transforming Care for People with Learning Disabilities – Next Steps set out what would be done urgently to address issues raised in Sir Stephen Bubb's earlier review of learning disability services. In July, a progress report showed what has been achieved in five key areas:

  • a public consultation on the Government’s Green paper to strengthen individuals rights
  • developing care and treatment reviews and an admissions gateway to prevent unnecessary hospital admissions and lengthy hospital stays
  • a fast-track programme to test and accelerate service re-design, including a new best practice service model for commissioners
  • testing of a new competency framework for staff to ensure the right skills  are in the right place
  • a more robust way of collecting and sharing data to track progress

Strengthening the 'capacity, capability, quality and leadership' of the learning disabilities nursing profession is also an important objective. As part of NHS England’s ‘Safer Staffing’ programme, new workforce planning tools are being developed to support services in assessing staffing requirements for learning disabilities community teams.  In addition, Health Education England has been working with its Transforming Care partners to make sure that development of the learning disabilities workforce supports the wider service re-design across health and social care. This should help mental health practitioners cooperate with staff across the NHS from frontline doctors to BMS specialists to provide the best possible treatment.

It's very encouraging that institutions such as USW are turning out such high-quality nursing graduates. (Learning disability nursing lecturer Victoria Jones also recently won a Student Nursing Times Educator of the Year award for her inspirational teaching style.) And with the obvious commitment of the NHS to significant improvements in learning disabilities care, the talent, imagination and commitment of its workforce will hopefully continue to be supported and developed.

Find out more about Jade Silver's innovative guide for people with learning disabilities here.

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