Lead NHS England nurse outlines future of learning disability nursing

Top learning disability nurse outlines early plan to reshape the profession in the face of declining numbers and criticism of the role

Plans to reset for the future are still in development but the outcome will be to increase the number of learning disability nurses, NHS England says

Picture shows NHS England and NHS Improvement head of learning disability nursing David Harling speaking at an RCNi Learning Disability Nursing Conference in October. 
NHS England and NHS Improvement head of learning disability nursing David Harling
wants to reset the profession. Picture: John Houlihan

An outline of how learning disability nursing will be reset for the future has been unveiled by NHS England and NHS Improvement head of learning disability nursing David Harling.

Mr Harling said the time was right to make changes, and referred to ‘loss of definitive professional direction’, the fact that some outside the profession did not understand the role of a learning disability nurse, discrimination from other branches of nursing and cases involving failures of care.

‘At times we are a bit inward looking. There is a lack of cohesion. We have got to stretch beyond the realms of just looking within our own circle,’ he told 2020 Learning Disability Now: The NHS and Beyond, held at the RCN in London.

The event, held on 6 January, heard that the number of learning disability nurses had continued to decline. Figures from the RCN’s learning disability forum show:

  • More than one third of learning disability nursing posts have been cut in the NHS in the past five years.
  • The number of band 7 and 8 posts fell 40% in 2010-15.
  • In the past decade student learning disability nurse numbers have fallen by one third, and it is the only branch to have reduced in 2016-17.

Plans include gathering and sharing examples of good practice

Mr Harling said NHS England and NHS Improvement are working with Health Education England on an 'all England joint action plan' for learning disability nursing, which stems from a summit held by former chief nursing officer Jane Cummings.

The plans are still in development and he hoped that all learning disability nurses would sign up to it, with the ultimate outcome being to increase the numbers of learning disability nurses.

Among the plans is an annual learning disability ‘harvest’ to gather and share examples of good practice, the creation of an online network, blended learning packages involving advanced specialist training programmes, a learning disability nursing symposium and an engagement advisory group involving expert voices in a ‘confirm and challenge’ group.

Referring to the centenary of learning disability nursing last year he said amazing work had been showcased but he was worried that the impetus created by the celebrations could be lost.

‘It made me, as I am sure it did you, so proud of our profession. What I am worried about is that the 100 years ends, and we say: “Thank you very much” and wait another 100 years.’

Mr Harling said the reset was also about the ‘behaviour that we expect to see’, being able to learn from what families have to say about care, learning disability nurses sharing what they do more widely to educate colleagues, and the ability to develop transferable skills so that learning disability nurses’ unique skills can be used more widely in specialist departments such as oncology and ophthalmology.

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