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NI’s First Acute Liaison Nurse appointed to support adults with a learning disability who require treatment at Altnagelvin Hospital


Clionagh McElhinney - NI's first Acute Liaison Nurse

The Western Trust are delighted to welcome the appointment of the First Acute Liaison Nurse supporting adults with a learning disability. Clionagh McElhinney, from Dungiven is the first nurse in Northern Ireland to be appointed to this role which recognises the need to support adults with a learning disability who require admission to hospital.

Karen O’Brien, Director of Mental Health and Learning Disability Services commented: “The appointment of Clionagh as the very first acute liaison nurse in Northern Ireland demonstrates the Trust’s commitment to supporting people with a learning disability and their carers.  Clionagh is an excellent, experienced nurse who has worked within the local community for over 24 years working as a community learning disability nurse. Her wealth of knowledge and expertise will ensure that the Trust’s delivers on our commitment to engaging and supporting people who attend our acute hospitals for care and treatment.”

Christine McLaughlin, Assistant Director for Adult Disability Services said: “Clionagh is an integral member of the Adult Learning Disability Community Nursing Team based at Altnagelvin Hospital, Londonderry. Clionagh’s role is to ensure reasonable adjustments for adults with a Learning Disability are met when they require admission to hospital.  She is the point of contact for hospital staff, carers, patients, other health care professionals and stakeholders to ensure the delivery of prompt, safe and effective care for patients with learning disabilities. As part of a multi-disciplinary team Clionagh will be supporting patients and their carers throughout their hospital journey, support individuals when they are admitted to hospital and also in all areas of the hospital such as the Emergency Department (ED) or Outpatients Department.”

Christine explained: “Reasonable adjustments means making small changes to the way hospital staff engage with patients with a learning disability including allowing extra time for their appointment; providing easy reading material; supporting carers at visiting times or facilitating carers staying overnight. During the current COVID19 Pandemic and the restrictions in visiting in place to protect patients and staff, Clionagh has helped facilitate video calls to loved ones. This has been an extremely challenging time for all health care staff and Clionagh has worked hard to ensure that our learning disability clients’ needs are met she is a wonderful advocate for learning disability services and we wish her ever success in her role.”

Click on the video below to view – Clionagh McElhinney – NI’s First Acute Liaison Nurse

Western Trust Staff Profile: Clionagh McElhinney, Registered Nurse Learning Disability (RNLD) and Community Learning Disability Nurse (CLDN)

Acute Liaison Nurse based at Altnagelvin Hospital

Can you explain your unique role in supporting people with a Learning Disability?

Within my role as acute liaison nurse, based at Altnagelvin Hospital, I ensure people with a learning disability receive safe, effective and compassionate care when they attend hospital.  I look at how my role can address the imbalance in health inequalities for people with a learning disability by liaising with, listening to parents and carers, and advocating for reasonable adjustments to be made when attending for outpatient appointments or admission to hospital.

A number of person centred adjustments have been made to support individuals with a learning disability including longer appointment times, easy read materials and a quieter environment.

I provide a vital link between families and healthcare staff and ensure individuals have had a ‘hospital passport’ completed, that staff read the passport and promote it usage within the acute hospital.

I provide specialist support and advice to staff in the acute hospital setting, delivering training on learning disability and autism awareness to staff. This has enabled staff to understand communication needs and behavioural responses to pain, discomfort and illness by people with a learning disability and autism.

I also ensure processes are in place to ensure adherence to the five key principles of the Mental Capacity Act; supporting and linking with families and wider multi-disciplinary teams during difficult decision making conversations.

I am involved in discharge planning, linking with professionals, signposting to services and attending meetings to ensure appropriate follow up care and support in the community.

What are the main challenges you have faced during the COVID19 Pandemic?

Covid-19 has been challenging for us all, but particularly for our vulnerable client group and their families. Family members faced the worry of their loved one being admitted to hospital and not being able to visit or advocate on their behalf which is extremely stressful for everyone. I was privileged to be able to support video calls, advocating for adjustments to visits which helped alleviate anxiety to both patient and their family.

The emotional distress caused by the change to patient routine, environment, and carers has been acknowledged and it is important that we recognise these challenges and address communication issues through easy reading materials and social stories, providing comfort and security to the individual and their families.

Wearing Masks and other PPE is another challenge as most of our patients communicate via non-verbal communication such as facial expressions and gestures this can be a frightening experience for them so again it is essential to communicate this via easy read materials and social stories.

I remained in my acute liaison role throughout the COVID19 pandemic which was a particularly worrying and challenging time for learning-disabled population. Restrictions on visiting, PPE requirements and on occasions difficult conversations expanded my role. My role was very much centred around providing essential support, advice and reassurance to families/carers and a link to staff within community learning disability teams and acute sector.

It must be an emotional time for you and your family?

It has been an emotional journey for myself and my family working during the pandemic. I was the only member of my household leaving the house to go to work.  I felt guilty that I would be the person who could potentially bring the virus into my family. My rituals and routines changed considerably returning home from work. I was wearing PPE and constantly risk assessing and being very vigilant about hand washing.  Unfortunately, in April  I tested positive for COVID. I followed government guidance regarding self-isolating for myself and my family. Thankfully I was able to recover at home and return to work.

What advice would you have for members of the public regarding staying safe and helping support the local health service at this time?

I would ask the public to please adhere to the government guidance, wash your hands regularly, keep social distancing and stay safe. We will all get through this together.