Researchers have found that while health visitors are a useful part of the team of health professionals who work with families in the community, more needs to be done to make them even more effective.
The National Nursing Research Unit, based at King’s College, London, has carried out a review called Why Health Visiting? The report looks at the impact health visitors have and whether they make a real difference to the families they see.
The research supports the four-year health visitor implementation plan by the Department of Health, which runs until 2015.
Professor Dame Sarah Cowley, who led the review, described the role of health visitors as essential to families and new parents. She noted their key part in helping families get the right support and helping mothers to increase in confidence and bond with their children.
She said the way health visitors interacted with parents on a one-to-one basis meant they were well-positioned to offer the necessary advice and help on health issues, especially to those who may find it difficult to access services.
But Dame Sarah said that although many positives to health visiting had been identified, there was a need for more research into how they can best serve children and families. She added that there should be more efforts to make sure health visitors were liaising with other health professionals and agencies.
“While our study found a lot of strengths in current provision, more research is needed in the field and there should be greater collaboration to ensure health visiting is considered within the wider context of services,” she said.
“There also needs to be more investment in education programmes for health visitors, including continuing professional development, and recruitment of students must take account of the values, skills and attitudes that are essential to the role,” she added.
Almost 350 research papers were studied as part of the review to work out the relationship between health visiting and outcomes for young children and their families.
The review identified essential skills, attitudes and attributes needed by health visitors and said that proven initiatives and schemes to help families stay healthy need to be implemented.
It also made a set of recommendations for the government and those involved in education, research and community health.
Professor Viv Bennett, director of nursing at the Department of Health and lead nurse at Public Health England, said: “Our aim is to increase the number of health visitors by around 50% by 2015 and this research is an important part of developing a service and ensuring the best outcomes for children and families from this expansion.
“The report shows the direction of travel is the right one and I welcome it drawing attention to the need for more attention to education and training, and the way the service is organised.”