Primary care services are facing a ‘growing number’ of families seeking services that would have previously been provided by a health visitor, as workforce shortages continue to raise serious concerns.
As new analysis from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) highlights a dramatic decline in the community nursing workforce, the Institute of Health Visiting (iHV) has warned of the impact on other services, including primary and urgent care.
Alison Morton, chief executive of the iHV, told Nursing in Practice that ‘significant workforce shortages’ were ‘severely hampering’ health visitors’ efforts to support young families, leading to almost half a million (458,454) missed checks between 2021-22.
Years of cuts had meant ‘many services are so depleted that they can only focus on a skeleton level of service and are forced to prioritise families with children protection concerns’, added Ms Morton.
Data from NHS England and NHS Digital, and analysed by the RCN this week, suggested that the number of health visitors has fallen by 30% between September 2009 and December 2022.
Meanwhile, the iHV’s own data, suggests an even more striking decline within recent years, with numbers of health visitors falling by 40% between October 2015 and February 2023.
The iHV estimates that there are now 6,688 full-time equivalent health visitors in England, down from over 11,000 in 2015.
Ms Morton warned: ‘The consequences of the cuts to health visiting are also having knock-on consequences across other healthcare services which are being overwhelmed by growing numbers of families turning to primary and urgent care services for support with minor childhood illnesses that would previously have been provided by a health visitor.’
But when adequately resourced, Ms Morton stressed that health visitors could help ‘alleviate pressure on the NHS and primary care by providing visible and accessible support to families with babies and young children in the heart of communities’.
She added: ‘The current costs of late intervention for children are spiralling out of control, as services focus on ‘firefighting’ rather than taking a proactive ‘upstream’ approach to prevent, identify and treat problems before they reach crisis point.’
A government spokesperson said it was ‘improving support for children, young people, and their families by providing around £300 million’ to fund a family programme across 75 local authorities in England.
According to the government, the Family Hubs and Start for Life programme ‘aims to join up and enhance services delivered through transformed family hubs in local authority areas, ensuring all families can access the support they need’.
The spokesperson said this was ‘making a difference by bringing together services and support for families with babies and children of all ages’.
‘This will have wide reach across the country and improve outcomes for thousands of babies, children, and families,’ they added.