Podcast: Good communication can save lives

Nursing Research: Professor Ruth Northway

Learning Disability Nursing - Professor Ruth NOrthway research


Good communication is essential to good healthcare. In this research podcast, learning disability nurse Professor Ruth Northway explores how communication tools can improve access to appropriate healthcare for people with learning disabilities.


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Poor quality healthcare causes avoidable deaths

Hello and welcome to Sixty Seconds Spotlight. I’m Ruth Northway, Professor of Learning Disability Nursing at the University of South Wales. My research focuses on the health and well-being of people with learning disabilities and ways to improve their access to healthcare. 

Over recent weeks Covid-19 has caused many of us to worry about our health and whether we can get access to healthcare when we need it. However, concerns regarding access to healthcare are unfortunately everyday experiences for people with learning disabilities and their families.  

Research undertaken at the University of South Wales has highlighted that a key barrier to access can be communication. 

Our healthcare system relies on our ability to provide health staff with information about our current health concerns and our health history in a way they can easily understand. This can be challenging for people with learning disabilities some of whom may communicate non-verbally or have difficulties with recalling and processing information. They may require the support of family or carers to ensure that this information is available but Covid-19 has made it more difficult for such support to be provided. 

One way of overcoming this problem is the use of communication tools to provide key information about an individual. 

Recently we have been undertaking research commissioned by Improvement Cymru at Public Health Wales to develop an All Wales tool providing key health information for use by healthcare professionals to assist them in providing appropriate, safe and timely care. Covid-19 has shown just how important such tools are. 

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Health inequalities

  • Numerous reports document the health inequalities experienced by people with learning disabilities (for example Michaels [2006], Emerson et al [2011], Heslop et al [2013])

  • Because of these inequalities people with learning disabilities experience premature and avoidable deaths compared with their non-disabled peers (Heslop et al, 2013; Glover et al, 2017)

  • Poor communication can be a key barrier to effective healthcare and health communication tools have been proposed as a way of addressing this

  • A range of health communication tools have been developed but there is a great deal of variation in terms of format and content. It has been suggested, therefore  that there is a need to standardise such tools to improve safety (Northway et al, 2017)    


About Professor Ruth Northway


Professor Ruth Northway, professor of learning disability nursing

Ruth Northway is Professor of Learning Disability Nursing at the University of South Wales and is head of the Unit for Development in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Professor Northway does research into the health needs of people with intellectual / learning disabilities, nursing and safeguarding.  She also has an interest in participatory research approaches. 

Ruth was the first Professor of Learning Disability Nursing, and the second learning disability nurse to be awarded an RCN Fellowship. She was awarded an OBE for services to learning disability nursing in the 2016 Birthday Honours List and the  Chief Nursing Officers’ Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2018.  She teaches on undergraduate and postgraduate nursing courses at USW.

See Professor Ruth Northway's research outputs

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