The government is considering fast tracking health visitor training in a bid to meet its pledge to employ an extra 4,200 health visitors by 2015, Nursing Times has learnt.
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Options being considered include allowing hospital nurses to train at work and validating nurses with relevant hospital based experience to work alone as health visitors in the community.
‘Is the current training for health visitors overelaborate - is it really needed?’
The proposals - thought to be the only means by which the government can meet its target to boost the workforce by more than 40 per cent - have led to concerns about the “dumbing down” of the health visitor role.
Health visitor numbers have fallen dramatically. In 1988 there were 10,680 full time equivalents but by September 2009 this had fallen to 8,519.
Royal College of Nursing chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter told Nursing Times: “We think it’s a great thing if we can get 4,000 new health visitors. But we’re talking with the government and [are] wanting to ensure we don’t dumb down the standards.
“They wouldn’t use that expression. But it is a concern we have.”
Current rules stipulate that health visitors must be qualified nurses, generally with at least two years’ practice, who have completed a post-registration degree level course of at least a year.
Mr Carter said discussions at the Department of Health centred on questions such as: “Is the current training overelaborate - is it really needed?”
He said the college and others were having lots of “dialogue” with the government and hoped to avoid health visitor training and skills becoming compromised. “We are hoping we can have significant influence,” he said.
However, Nursing Times has been told the DH is exploring how nurses working in hospitals may be given a health visiting qualification through an “accredited prior learning” model or “on the job” training.
Direct entry courses are also being considered, in which students could train as health visitors without needing to obtain a nursing degree, similar to some midwifery courses.
Nursing Times understands the DH is looking at a new model of health visitor training being used at Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Primary Care Trust.
There, community nurses are able to train to become health visitors while practising alongside qualified health visitors.
Anne Hall, lead health visitor at Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Community Health Services, told Nursing Times that the trainees were not asked to do anything beyond their competence and worked under qualified health visitors.
Ms Hall added it was now significantly easier to recruit. She said: “There were people out there wanting to come into the community once we opened the door.”
But a senior community nursing source told Nursing Times the Cornwall model would only be safe if the assessments at the end of practical training were robust.
The source pointed to the recent history of nurse mentors unwilling to fail poor student nurses on degree placements.
A DH spokeswoman confirmed it was exploring options to make it easier for people to qualify as health visitors.
She said: “We are working with the Nursing and Midwifery Council and professional bodies, looking at how the entry standards can be achieved through more flexible ways of training.”
The government is committed to increasing the number of health visitors to ensure that families get the services they need led and provided by highly skilled professionals.