The health visitor workforce is continuing to shrink despite the high profile government drive to boost numbers – and fears are growing that it may have been even smaller than first thought.
The government wants to see an extra 4,200 health visitors practising by 2015 compared to May 2010, when there were 8,092 full time equivalents working in England, according to NHS Information Centre data.
The latest figures from June 2011 show this has fallen to 7,803, with seven out of the 10 English regions reporting a decline.
However, Nursing Times has learned the Department of Health is in the middle of a “data cleansing exercise” which is expected to show the original May 2010 baseline had been inaccurately counted.
A spokesman for NHS South Central said part of its apparent 5% reduction in health visitors since May 2010 could be accounted for by the application of a “tighter definition” of who could be counted as a health visitor, in line with new guidance from the Centre for Workforce Intelligence. Nursing Times last week reported similar problems in the North West region (news, p5, 4 October).
Qualified health visitors who are not working in clinical posts and staff on part two of the Nursing and Midwifery Council register, which lists specialist community staff, cannot be counted as health visitors, the guidance says.
Unite lead professional officer and health visitor Obi Amadi told Nursing Times these practices had been widespread.
“Historically, we have seen that organisations tend to inflate figures to show themselves in a good light but in this case it has blown up in their faces,” she said.
“Now primary care trusts are worried because they’re still haemorrhaging health visitor posts. This is why we want to see a ring fence around the health visitor budget so the extra money government has provided for health visitors cannot be used to fund anything else.”
Nursing Times understands the DH will retain its target of 12,292 health visitors in post by 2015 because officials believe the figure represents the needs of the population.
Meanwhile, the NMC last week wrote to thousands of former health visitors to encourage them to return to practice.
Courses will be paid for by strategic health authorities and will take between three and six months, depending on how long an individual has been out of practice. A health visitor whose registration lapsed between five and 10 years ago must complete 20 full days’ practice while those out of the profession for between 11 and 20 years would need to do 40 days.
Of the three regions that saw increases only the North East saw a significant expansion, with a 16% growth in numbers. The East Midlands had an additional three health visitors in post while Yorkshire and the Humber added just one.
South East Coast and East of England said their figures were skewed as some health visitors had moved to a social enterprise and a local authority respectively and were therefore not counted by the information centre. They said they had actually experienced smaller reductions - 0.9% and 7.4% respectively.
A DH spokesman said SHAs planned to train 1,818 health visitors in 2011, up from 545 the previous year. As of 1 September they had filled 1,296 training places, and expected the 522 gap to be filled by another intake between January and March.
She added: “At present, as all Health visitor courses start in September and last for at least a year, we expect to see a small dip in numbers of health visitors.
“However, most SHAs are planning to introduce at least two intakes a year which will see a significant increase in the speed of recruitment over the next two years.”