Health Visitors Warn Staff Shortages Mean Poorer Care For Children

Staff shortages have left many health visitors responsible for more than 1,000 children each, suggests a survey. Nearly 75% of 829 health visitors polled said they could not meet the needs of the most vulnerable children.

The union Unite, which helped carry out the survey across England, said the profession was “on the ropes”.

A separate poll of 6,000 mothers suggested most would have liked to have seen their health visitor more often in the month after birth.

Health visitors call on new mothers, usually in the weeks after birth, and are trained to recognise the signs of post natal depression and other problems.

More than half of mothers report some signs of post-natal depression, and it can have an impact on child development.

The survey of health visitors revealed high workloads – in total 60% were responsible for more than 500 cases, with just under 20% caring for more than 1,000 children.

The poll found that a quarter even felt the death of a child through abuse was likely in their area.

Unite and the Community Practitioners’ and Health Visitors’ Association (CPHVA) called for more investment.

Cheryll Adams, from the association, said that a case load of more than 1,000 children was “ridiculous”.

“Anything over 500 just becomes incredibly difficult, and the stress in staff is immense.

“You need to build a relationship with these families, and with those kind of numbers, it is almost impossible to do this – you’ll do your best, but some will fall by the wayside.”

Karen Reay, from Unite, said: “These findings are a terrible indictment, which demonstrate that the health visiting profession is on the ropes.

“Families and communities will suffer as a result, which is completely the reverse of what the government’s ‘family friendly’ policies are intended to promote.”

‘Crucial support’

The other survey, by parenting website Netmums, six out of ten mothers said they felt they didn’t see their health visitor enough during the first year of their child’s life.

Just over 40% said they saw their health visitor only once or twice during the first two months.

Half said they saw their health visitor in the first two months, but not afterwards.

Professor Sarah Cowley, Professor of Community Practice Development at the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery, said: “Supporting new mothers and their families is crucial if babies are to have a sound start in life.

“Parents all need help at some time, and surveys have shown that they turn to their GPs if health visitors are not available, not what doctors want or are trained for.”

Sally Russell, from Netmums, said: “We are constantly stunned by the accounts we receive from our members of the poor standards of care their receive, even in the earliest stages of motherhood.

“It’s crunch time – with underinvestment, a retiring population of health visitors and a breakdown of traditional support systems.

“The current system means that many new mums have to simply fend for themselves.”

A spokesman for the Department of Health said that its reforms were prioritising the needs of children.

He said: “Health visitors are part of a network of the health and child care workers who provide support to children and families.

“Whilst there has been a reduction in the number of health visitors, there has been an expansion in the wider workforce of both health promotion and children’s services.

“The number of nurses working in the community increased by 28,235 between 1997 and 2007.”