Vickie Peters RNLD, National Practice Development Lead in Learning Disability & Autism, Cygnet Health Care
It has long been reported and believed that nursing in social care is considered the poor relation to the NHS, with social care nurses reporting they feel invisible and undervalued.
A differing perspective on this maybe the limited understanding on the diverse and varied roles undertaken by nurses in social care. Often when we think about nurses in social care we associate this with nursing the older generation, but nursing in social care is so much more. Social care nurses provide a wide spectrum of care and support to diverse user groups. These groups include those requiring palliative care, children and adults with complex health needs who may also have learning disabilities.
This diversity makes the role of the learning disability nurse unique and different from other branches of nursing. In other branches of nursing the focus is on “treating” a condition or illness, but for learning disability nurses our focus is on reducing barriers and enhancing a person’s quality of life. In essence they cannot “cure” a person’s learning disability but we can help them to develop, strengthen and learn skills and provide them with real opportunities to flourish and be valued members of their communities.
It is widely recognised that people with a learning disability experience inequalities in all aspects of their lives but particularly in relation to health and wellbeing. Over the last 15 years, and more, we have seen enquiry after enquiry detailing the difficulties and discrepancies that people with learning disabilities continue to experience. Despite this, access to equitable healthcare services continue to be a concern with the life expectancy for people with learning disabilities being significantly lower than the rest of the population from preventable and avoidable illnesses. Whilst this is slowly starting to improve through the introduction of reasonable adjustments and recognition of the need for equality, but there is still significant progress needing to be made.
This is where the role of the learning disability nurse in social care can have a significant role and impact upon the health of a person. Within social care; learning disability nurses may be employed in residential, day care and supported living type services. This enables them to work collaboratively with the people themselves, their families advocating to health professionals, often being the first point of contact for the individual. They are able to provide a wide range of health interventions which can vary from monitoring of side effects of medications to undertaking physiological observations.
Despite the clear benefits and values of learning disability nurses, their role is still poorly understood and appreciated by other health care disciplines. This may be contributing to the national decline in learning disability nurses and enrolment onto the nurse training. Currently learning disability nursing represents only 2.3% of all nurses on the NMC register (RCN 2021).
For this to improve, the government and society needs to embrace the skills and values that learning disability nurses bring to the table and promote this forgotten but essential sector of nursing.
We often see TV and media stories about adult nursing but rarely is the learning disability nurse promoted or showcased. If we want to educate the public and encourage people to come into this remarkable profession we need to see real stories and opportunities promoted through the news, TV and social media. We need to shout out about the real impact that can be achieved and the amazing opportunities this vocation brings.
It is hoped that the appointment last year of our first Chief Nurse for Adult Social Care in England will bring real opportunities to champion the role of social care nurses and to achieve that parity of esteem with NHS nurses that everyone aspires to.
Ref: RCN (2021) Connecting for Change: for the future of learning disability nursing.