Sunderland Celebrates 100 Years of Learning Disability Nursing

Posted on the 24 June 2019

Sunderland Celebrates 100 Years of Learning Disability Nursing

“I want to make a difference to the lives of people with learning disabilities and hope others see how rewarding it is to support their healthcare needs.”

That’s the message from Nicola Tracey, one of the first students to sign up to the University of Sunderland’s new Learning Disability Nursing Practice degree, as 100 years of the profession is celebrated nationally this week.

Nicola, 39, from Cramlington, a former teaching assistant supporting children with special educational needs, hopes to make a difference in her new career which is suffering a chronic national shortage of skilled professionals dedicated to improving the health prospects of people with learning disabilities.

“Hopefully we can shine a spotlight on our skills and valued work we’re doing through this celebration anniversary event,” she says. “I love what I’m doing and work with an amazing group of people.”

Studies show people with learning disabilities have a significantly lower life expectancy than the general population and are at higher risk of certain diseases including diabetes, hearing loss, cardiovascular disease and obesity.

Findings published in the most recent Learning Disabilities Mortality Review (LeDeR) indicate ongoing concerns about the premature deaths of people with a learning disability; women died 27 years earlier and men 23 years, when compared to the general population.

The University of Sunderland is hoping to turn the tide with its new degree, training an army of nurses dedicated to this vulnerable group, removing the barriers and understanding of their symptoms and recognised anxieties about health interventions, in particular needle tests, which frequently prevent them from seeking treatment.

Support for the degree launched last September comes from Sunderland’s Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and has been developed in collaboration with Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (NTW), and Tees, Esk and Wear Valley Foundation Trust (TEWV). It further enhances the suite of nursing the university now provides including mental health and adult nursing practice.

To ensure the students gain practical experience of working with patients, Sunderland has a unique relationship with the Patient, Carer and Public Involvement (PCPI) Group who take part in a variety of activities to support learning within the University’s health sciences.

One of those PCPIs who recognises the importance of highly skilled learning disability nurses is Nathan Holt, from Sunderland.

“I have found the experience of being a PCPI hugely beneficial, it’s interesting to see how the place works. I like the experience, and while I know it’s not a real hospital but I get a window into seeing how the environment works.

“It’s also comfortable environment and I never feel on edge. The staff and students always put me at ease. It’s also a nice little bit of part-time work. It’s important that we highlight the work they do.”

Ruth Wilsonfirst qualified as a learning disability nurse in 1990 (then referred to as Registered Nurse for Mentally Handicapped)and spent 19 years working with the Learning Disability NHS Service, moving around the Trust working in day services, community teams, respite units, in-patient wards in a variety of roles. She supported people with learning disabilities of all ages, with forensic backgrounds, physical disabilities, mental health problems and challenging behaviour.

She is now training the next generation of learning disability nurses at the University of Sunderland as Programme Leader for the degree. She said: “Celebrating 100 years of learning disability nursing is a great opportunity to continue to raise awareness of the profession and highlight our achievements over the last year.

“The opportunities for learning disability nurses is vast with various specialist roles and this continues to increase, so much progress has been made since I qualified.

“However, there is an ever greater demand for their skills, yet a reduction in courses nationally in thisarea. We aim to change this as we need nurses who fully understand this community and can communicate properly with them. There are all sorts off fears and anxieties for this community interacting with health professionals, and as a result they are dying young, with shorter life expectancies, health inequalities and not getting the proper screening.”

Work to promote the vital role of learning disability nursing since the launch of the degree has been highlighted at workshops in the city. The most recent being at Bede College. The University was also involved in a North East study which recommended that the health prospects of people with learning disabilities could be improved if more use was made of medical testing technology which is carried out close to where the patient is receiving care, known as Point of Care Testing.

Ashley Murphy, Primary Care Programme Manager for Learning Disability and Autism in Sunderland, supported the University as part of the Point of Care Testing initiative.

She said: “Learning Disability numbers that we are recruiting are falling so it’s vitally important we highlight and promote the work they do. This is also an opportunity to celebrate the diversity of nursing that is out there.”

Linda Reiling, Mental Health Learning Disability and Autism Commissioner for Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), added: “I think it’s a very difficult time for healthcare, trying to get the right people into the right roles with the right skills, that’s why courses like this are really important to give people a taste of the work. This is not for everyone, you have to have acertain skillset, be very patient with people, and have to be able to accommodate any challenging behaviour and not take things personally.

“This training ensures that people are robust enough and have the resilience themselves to deal with some challenging situations. The patients also benefit from the training at Sunderland. 

“The world is changing  towards learning disability and autism, and being a strategic commissioner you can’t look at the system in isolation, you have to look at all aspects of mainstream services.”

First-year learning disability nurse Sharon Brown, 49, from Bishop Auckland, had been working in retail for 30 years but decided to make a change once her children were all grown up.

After completing a Foundation Degree in Health and Social Care, she was hooked and knew this was the career for her.

“I absolutely love studying here, and working with the PCPIs really makes the role worthwhile. We need to bang the drum for all those working in this area and encourage others to come into it. It’s incredibly rewarding. I left a full-time job to come and do this which was a big step but definitely have no regrets.”

Glenn Batey, a Senior Lecturer in Pre-Registration Learning Disability Nursing and himself a qualified learning disability nurse, said: Our graduates will be ready to deliver caring, compassionate and restorative interventions to those with a learning disability. They will be able to deliver effective and sincere person-centred care based upon a contemporary evidence-base, which will be administered and applied within a spectrum of clinical skills to include physical health monitoring and promotion, and positive mental wellbeing. They will ensure the mental well-being of families and carers with a relative who has a learning disability.”

For more information about Learning Disability Nursing Practice click here.