There are currently 12,077 health visitors working in England – 3,985 more than there were five years ago. Despite a recruitment drive there are still shortages, especially in big cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester. If you’re interested in working as a health visitor, here’s what you need to know.
What the role involves
Health visitors work to improve the health and well-being of families and young children, making sure that they have access to a range of health services. They visit people in their own homes, especially new mothers and children, and run community clinics to carry out developmental checks and promote healthcare, giving advice on everything from feeding and sleeping to speech development.
Research shows that by working with, and supporting families during the early years of a child’s life, health visitors have a profound impact on the lifelong health and wellbeing of young children and their families.
The new service model for health visitors, developed in 2010, gives them more responsibility for improving the health of families with children under the age of five. Health visitors decide with the family what level of support is required from the four levels of service offered.
While every family receives the universal service (with five visits at key points in a child’s life) some families have specific or complex needs which require care over a longer period of time.
Under the four, five, six model – which aims to clarify the services offered by health visitors – there are six high impact areas where health visitors make the biggest difference. They are:
- transition to parenthood
- maternal mental health
- healthy weight and nutrition
- managing minor illness and preventing accidents
- the two-year review.
Working collaboratively with Sure Start children’s centres, schools, preschool, and other agencies in the local community, health visitors also play a key role in safeguarding children.
Personal qualities required
If you enjoy working with young children in the community and prefer a varied role where you can build relationships with families over time, health visiting could be for you.
Good communication skills are a must. As well as good listening skills, you should have a sensitive and non-judgemental approach, and be able to relate to people from all backgrounds with tact and patience.
You must be able to work on your own initiative and have strong leadership skills, as you will need to delegate and coordinate others. Good team working skills are also required in order to build networks with a range of partner organisations and agencies.
The role can be challenging – you may find yourself counselling people on issues such as post-natal depression and bereavement – so the ability to cope emotionally with distressing issues is a must.
Qualifications and training
In order to become a health visitor, you must be a qualified and registered nurse or midwife and have undertaken an approved programme in specialist community public health nursing/health visiting (SCPHN/HV). Courses are available at universities across the country at degree level and are usually one-year full time or part–time over two years.
The course is split evenly between classroom-based study and placements in the community, working under the supervision of an experienced health visitor. Topics covered include: developing public health practice, leadership and management, health promotion, supporting parenting, safeguarding vulnerable people and research skills.
It’s possible to take the training straight after qualifying. Some professionals working as a nurse or midwife may be sponsored or seconded onto a training programme by their employer, others apply for an NHS bursary, while others fund themselves.
Experienced health visitors may choose to specialise in a particular area, for example, working with specific parts of the community such as asylum seekers, domestic violence cases and the travelling community.
With experience, there may be an opportunity to progress to team manager, community matron or a management role in another department of the NHS. Some health visitors progress into consulting, education or research.
Future of the profession
As of October 2015, NHS England will transfer commissioning of services for children between the ages of 0-5 to local authorities, including the health visitor service.
As local authorities know their communities and understand local need, the idea is that they are best placed to commission the most vital services to improve local children’s health and wellbeing and to educate the parents. Plus, they will give councils the opportunity to link up with other systems, such as housing and early year’s education providers, leading to a more joined-up, cost effective service.
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