Two years ago, I and three others established the Institute of Health Visiting (iHV), a new professional body focused solely on improving the quality and consistency of the services that health visitors deliver to children and families. We do this in a variety of ways including building leadership in the profession through a new Fellows scheme and creating opportunities for talented health visitors and those with a specialist interest to grow and develop professionally. We also major on strengthening education, and hope in the future to attract resources to support the quality agenda and improve the very limited research base for health visiting services.
Its been quite an extraordinary journey - to start anything new in a recession some people felt was mad, but we were very concerned that the profession needed to strengthen its academic and professional base alongside the government increasing numbers of health visitors. There is a huge new research base, which I have written about previously, which demonstrates the importance of the first two years of life to future mental, social and physical health of every child. Health visitors, through their universal service delivery are in a prime place to ensure that this is responded to in practice and every child has the best start in life.
I have learnt about setting up a charity, working with lawyers and accountants, branding, websites, human resources, recruitment, many aspects of finance – from writing bids to paying organisational invoices, establishing a membership scheme, working in partnership with other organisations, the challenges of staying solvent as a charity, financial audit and producing annual accounts for Companies House and using social media to name just a few. Also at a very basic, but important level about how to produce and courier resources around the country, efficient ways of creating badges for events and how to run cost effective training, and particularly how to manage on the very limited income we had initially. Needless to say it’s been a very steep learning curve, but an enjoyable one, as the whole experience has been very positive. Seeing the website for the first time after weeks of trying to work out what we wanted on it was probably the most exciting. Watching the feedback to our posts on Twitter and Facebook and seeing just how efficient these channels are for reaching a wide audience with public health messages has also been very revealing – essentially educating a profession can be done in many ways. We were fortunate in being able to give provide some scholarships for some of our perinatal mental health champions to attend an international conference on perinatal mental health being held in Wales in September. Three days of hearing clinicians and researchers in the field presenting their cutting-edge material not only ensured that this went straight back to practice, avoiding the usually very slow process through publication, but also they were left highly motivated to establish new and different services for their clients based on projects they were hearing about. Furthermore they had three days’ of networking with all these individuals sharing their practice with others and realising what good services many of them are already delivering. By the end of the third day their morale was very high which must only have been good for their service when they returned to practice. I have personally always felt similar benefits from international conferences and I think there is a real case for the NHS in investing in their staff with specialist areas of work by sending them to such events, after all many are held in the UK so need not require expensive airfares.
The other message I want to share is the benefit of allowing staff to develop specialist interests and using them as a local resource. We know from research into health visitor retention that this is the thing that motivates health visitors to stay in their posts. We have now created champions in perinatal mental health, experts in domestic violence and abuse. Champions in infant mental health and experts in safeguarding are undergoing training as I type. In every case we are liberating talent so I really hope this is nurtured by their employers. I have been staggered by the outcomes these health visitors are delivering, creating new services, disseminating the training - not only to colleagues but to other professionals and those they work with in local authorities, and even having the confidence to take up national opportunities to feed in their professional experience.
While the iHV is testing new ways of developing my profession we are learning a great deal. I really hope that others will embrace our learning and benefit from them too.
Dr Cheryll Adams is the Director of the Institute of Health Visiting and also works as an independent consultant.
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