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Cheryll Adams: 'New institute will boost research and quality in health visiting'

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The Institute of Health Visiting will support the development of excellence in practice, says Cheryll Adams

The Institute of Health Visiting (iHV) was launched on the 28 November to support the delivery of high-quality and consistent evidence-based health visiting practice. The institute is being launched in the year that marks 150 years since health visiting began in Salford in 1862. Since that time, health visiting has become an essential preventive service across the UK, one that has subsequently been replicated by many other countries of the world.

The iHV will support the primary remit of health visitors, which is to promote and protect health and thereby further public health improvement. Health visitors work at the level of the child, family and community, taking a holistic approach, which requires considering all the factors that may impact on a child or family’s health. This includes their environment, family factors - social, emotional and physical – as well as underlying health issues and wider factors, such as economic constraints upon the family. Hence it can be a very complex role.

Health visitors work with every family – regardless of their circumstances rich poor or socially excluded, English speaking or not, so they must be able to be flexible in their approaches and have highly developed communication skills in order to deliver health improvement in often difficult circumstances.

‘The focus of the institute will be on strengthening research, education and quality in health visiting’

Following a period in which the health visiting service appeared to be in rapid decline, the government has developed the Health Visitor Implementation Plan to re-energise and develop the profession and service. It is investing significantly in increasing workforce numbers, responding to the strengthened research base, which demonstrates that what happens to a child in the period of pregnancy to two years may have life-long health and social consequences. This is obviously of great importance. If there is a way of reducing life-long mental illness by providing a child with a happier start in life and thereby reducing later criminal justice and NHS costs, or reducing the burden of obesity and coronary heart disease by improving early diet, it is logical to invest in it. Health visiting, through its universal service focused on children, families and communities, can provide the solution, but only if it is adequately resourced and supported.

The iHV is being established by senior health visitors to support the development of excellence in practice. If health visiting is to add value to the delivery of positive public health outcomes then it is about more than numbers. The profession must also develop an improved research base for its practice, so that its services are evidence based and of a consistently high quality. Furthermore, the profession must regain its confidence and public health leadership role so that it is able to demonstrate to commissioners that it can make a real difference to the health of this country.

There is still much to do. Even though over a thousand new health visitors qualified this autumn, many more are needed to meet the target of an additional 4,200 in post by 2015, particularly in the face of a high retirement rate among the existing workforce and an increasing birth rate. Workloads remain too high, and the exciting prospect of many enthusiastic newcomers is tempered by awareness that these colleagues will need support and time to settle into their challenging new roles.

The focus of the institute will be on strengthening research, education and quality in health visiting, and on providing easily accessible evidence-based resources to support practitioners. We hope that this professionally driven initiative will put down a positive marker as the profession marks its 150 year-anniversary.

Cheryll Adams is founding director at the Institute of Health Visiting

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