April 2021 – Student nurses learn about person centred care through virtual practice learning

In January 2021, adult nursing students at Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU) embarked on their first Virtual Practice Learning (VPL) experience, providing them with opportunities to learn about different aspects of nursing practice remotely. VPL was developed as a response to students being unable to attend clinical environments due to individual risks, and reduced placement capacity because of the pandemic. The outbreak of COVID-19 saw a range of new approaches to placement activity that can be counted towards the programme delivery and still provide students with a rich experience (NHS Employers 2020).

Pre-registration students in adult nursing receive little education in the field of learning disabilities (Howells 2019) and previously arranged face to face sessions with people with a learning disability or autism have not been able to take place due to restrictions, so we decided that this could be a good aspect of nursing practice to focus on. The week included online resources and live sessions with practitioners, support groups and people with learning disabilities. The aim of the week was for students to consider how they could adapt their future practice to support people with learning disabilities and autism more effectively.  

The week began with the student nurses learning about what a learning disability and autism is, and the health inequalities that people with these conditions face, with emphasis on the current Covid-19 pandemic. The group met with Learning Disability Nurses from acute and community NHS trusts which gave them an insight into what may need to be considered when assessing and planning care, such as communication, consent, the environment and including family or support workers. The students learnt about hospital passports and how to access further support and advice. A session with the Mental Health for Learning Disability team highlighted the need to promote mental health for people with a learning disability, potential challenges in assessing and managing mental health needs and how these can be overcome.

The students were directed to a wide range of ‘patient voice’ resources including blogs, podcasts and videos. However, it is recommended that health professionals have face-to-face education, involving people with a learning disability to increase exposure to this group and accurately portray their opinions and lived experiences (DoH&SC 2019). We therefore arranged virtual meetings with Autism South East, Mencap East Kent Gold and the supported learning department at Canterbury College. As part of their focus on transition to employment, the Canterbury College students wanted to find out about working in healthcare, so this new collaboration promised mutual benefits.

Student feedback after the virtual meetings echoed Harper et al (2020) in that there is a need for people with a learning disability to be included in training for health professionals, to ensure the barriers they face are portrayed in a credible and reliable way.

“Honestly, so amazing this morning chatting with the students in a video call and in a well organised manner. In fact, it’s an unforgettable experience, sharing and imparting knowledge with each other.”

“I found this session to be of great benefit to us as future nurses as it provided an opportunity to gain a valuable insight to their experiences in health care and how we can improve the care provided to individuals with learning disabilities within our future practice.”

At the end of the week the students completed presentations using scenarios to show what they may need to consider when supporting a person with learning disabilities or autism. The information needed to be presented clearly with audio to demonstrate their new understanding of accessible communication. The students reviewed the presentations as a group with additional feedback given by a Senior Lecturer in Learning Disability at CCCU. This presentation film is a good example of how the student nurses will aim to avoid discrimination in healthcare and value the views of people with learning disabilities, supporting them to be involved in decision making by providing accessible information, considering the impact of the environment and recognising the importance of their support networks.  

The student evaluations for the week showed that they had gained considerable understanding and knowledge that they could use in practice to promote person centred care for people with a learning disability or autism. Several students stated that they are now considering specialising in this area of nursing having been inspired by the professionals they met. This is particularly pleasing following the NHS People Plan call for ‘urgent’ action to tackle nursing vacancies, particularly in primary and community, mental health and learning disability settings (Launder 2019). Providing opportunities to meet people with learning disabilities had a valuable impact on the nursing students and going forward we hope to continue our virtual collaboration with these expert groups.

Gemma Tonkinsmith Academic in Practice- Adult Nursing

Canterbury Christ Church University


Department of Health and Social Care (2019) Learning Disability and Autism Training for Health and Care Staff: Consultation Document. Department of Health and Social Care.

Harper L et al (2020) A training resource to educate students about learning disabilities. Nursing Times [online]; 116: 4, 23-26.

Howells J (2019) Training students to care for people with learning disabilities. Nursing Times [online]; 115: 4, 32-33.

Launder M (2019) Clinical placements to increase by 25% as part of NHS workforce plan. Nursing in Practice https://www.nursinginpractice.com/latest-news/clinical-placements-to-increase-by-25-as-part-of-nhs-workforce-plan/ Accessed 23/03/2021.

NHS Employers (2020) Expanding placement capacity https://www.nhsemployers.org/your-workforce/plan/workforce-supply/education-and-training/expanding-placement-capacity Accessed 20/03/21.

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