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OPINION

Making every contact count

David Foster has a confession to make: He’s changed his mind, and it’s so obvious it’s painful!

David Foster, Deputy Director of Nursing at the Department of Health

David Foster, Deputy Director of Nursing at the Department of Health

I spent a long part of my career as an acute nurse and midwife with the attitude that a hospital episode of care is not the time for public health messages – even with a captive audience of patients, their relatives and carers. How wrong I was. I’m now a convert and believe that every nurse and midwife can make our every contact with the people in our care a real opportunity for improving health, preventing ill health and reducing health inequalities. We all need to make every contact count.

Our influence with individuals is important, but so is our reach into communities and bigger populations. This is put in clear terms in the Public Health Outcomes Framework. This framework will help bring about fundamental improvements in the public’s health and wellbeing, by focusing on five key priorities:

  • Helping people to live longer by reducing preventable deaths from conditions such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and liver disease;
  • Increasing healthy life expectancy by tackling conditions that place a burden on many lives, such as anxiety, depression and back pain;
  • Protecting the population from infectious diseases and environmental hazards including emerging risks and the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance;
  • Supporting families to give children the best start in life, through working with health visitors, Family Nurse Partnerships and the Troubled Families programme;
  • Helping employers to facilitate and encourage their staff to make healthy choices.

Putting it into practice

And I’ve seen this in action: With a health visitor in Thetford, Norfolk, I was thrilled to see the sensitive way she gave smoking cessation advice to a grandfather-to-be while conducting a visit to his daughter who was expecting twins. She wasn’t just armed with leaflets, although she sensibly did have some printed information to leave behind. She had a very warm, common-sense approach about the realities of cutting down his smoking rather than stopping altogether by the due date. It was also fascinating to see how he and his daughter absorbed the science of toxins being carried on clothes and, despite being encouraged to smoke outside away from the babies, to realise that the fumes carried back into the house could be just as damaging. 

This health visitor did really make every contact count. She took the opportunities of a routine visit and conversation to get across some incredibly important public health messages.  In fact she put me to shame.

On the same day my discussions with midwives led in a similar direction. Public health midwifery addresses issues such as domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, smoking, substance misuse, mental health and those in vulnerable groups, such as minority ethnic women and those seeking asylum. All these issues concerned the midwives I met, admittedly not at a population level but as a reflection of their individual caseloads – women, their babies and families with complex needs who each needed care tailored to their individual circumstances. This takes a great deal of professional agility, but the esteem in which midwives are held in society gives us a significant degree of influence to tackle such sensitive issues with authority and trust.

For much of my career I held the prejudice that people needing short episodes of acute care and treatment were not really subjects for public health messages. What were they really going to do about their smoking, drinking, diet and exercise when they were so unwell they needed hospital care? So many opportunities missed. But it is clear to me now that as professionals we have a duty, a challenging duty I admit, to keep the good health messages flowing in all our interactions regardless of the situation.

Making every contact count means making that effort every time with everyone, we might never see the benefits first hand, but our impact can be profound.

David Foster recommends the excellent online training resource, Making Every Contact Count – a concept which aims to improve lifestyles and reduce health inequalities

Readers' comments (4)

  • Was he asleep in the Health ed classes when he was a student nurse? What on earth did he think was going to get patients well and keep them well?

    Or did he just think, like so many of his kind that he had superior knowledge, to us female nurses?

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  • David need not feel guilty, i have come across many Nurses who felt the same, that whilst a patients was ill and worried about their condition that wasn't the time to discuss their lifestyle issues. But I have always argued that in fact times like that may be when a patient or their relative may be most likely to take the message on board.

    And like David says it doesn't have to be about leaflets or preaching, it's about all about a friendly helpful approach.

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  • This is a fabulous illustration of the positive influencing power of well trained and empowered midwives, nurses and health visitors.

    The only problem we now have is the requisite adequate consultation period or continuity of carer in order to work with every patient and make full use of each contact in a timely way.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • @ anonymous 27 december 2013 11:50pm

    having read your comment i'm surprised midwives don't feel they have superior knowledge to MALE nurses as well! or did i mis-read your comment? if so please clarify :-)

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