Learning disability nursing: why can’t we do more to recruit more?

Amid concerns that university nursing courses are becoming more generic, NHS figures show nurse numbers in England have fallen by 31% in the past decade

NHS figures show learning disability nurse numbers in England have fallen by 30% in the past decade
Picture: iStock

Strikes, staff shortages and low morale are dominating the headlines – and for good reason.

But amid the gloom there was another familiar call – more needs to be done to increase the number of people choosing learning disability nursing as a career. Now where have we heard that before?

Undergraduate university nursing programmes becoming more generic

Many times over the years is the answer and yet, despite efforts, particularly the NHS All England plan, that particular corner has not yet been turned.

‘All the evidence shows that employing learning disability nurses enhances care significantly’

NHS figures show that numbers of registered learning disability nurses in England has fallen by 31% in the past decade, with 4,353 in 2012 and 2,983 in 2022. Many will be working in the private sector or for charities, but those figures are not available centrally.

Also, there is now concern that undergraduate university programmes are becoming more generic and adult-nursing focused.

All the evidence shows that employing learning disability nurses enhances care significantly.

In fact, it is the lack of understanding of the needs of people with learning disabilities by non-specialist health workers that led to the Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training in Learning Disabilities and Autism in England and the Paul Ridd Learning Disability Education and Training Programme in Wales.

RCN Nursing Awards and Learning Disability Practice webinar

Concerns about falling numbers of nursing undergraduates were highlighted at the recent Learning Disability Practice webinar by Professor Brian Webster-Henderson, chair of the Council of Deans of Health UK.

The same event also heard from inspirational learning disability nurses whose innovative work is helping to improve care. Not least was Gerard Wainwright, the winner of this year’s learning disability nursing category at the RCN Nursing Awards. He won the award for developing the unsafe swallow (dysphagia) project at St Anne’s Community Services in Leeds.

Dysphagia can lead to aspiration pneumonia and is one of the leading causes of death in people with learning disabilities. It has been identified in successive Learning Disability Mortality Reviews (LeDeR).

The LeDeR reports identify the significant health inequalities that people with learning disabilities face and why not enough is being done. They also demonstrate why more learning disability nurses are needed.

The challenge is to encourage more people to join you.

If you did not attend the webinar or want to listen again, it is free for everyone to watch.

Christine Walker is editor of Learning Disability Practice

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