Health visiting review: ministers to consider axing family health checks

By Joe Lepper

| 06 July 2016

The government has launched a review into health visiting that could signal the end of mandatory health checks for families, amid claims that the future of the profession is being placed at risk.

The requirement for health visitors to visit families five times by the time a child is two-and-a-half could be scrapped. Picture: Shutterstock

The Department of Health has commissioned Public Health England (PHE) to carry out the review into the future of health visitor family checks beyond March 2017, when legislation requiring them to be carried out on a mandatory basis expires.

Parents can currently expect five health checks - one before birth, one when the baby is born, one when the baby is between six and eight weeks old, one when they are between nine and 12 months old, and one when the child is aged between two and two-and-a-half years old.

They are seen as important ways for families to access information about a range of family health issues such as immunisation and feeding, as well as mental health and parenting support.

Options put forward to ministers include renewing the mandatory requirement, amending the number of visits, or scrapping the requirement altogether.  

A letter has now been sent to all health visiting commissioners and professional leaders by PHE chief nurse Viv Bennett and Phil Norrey, children and families spokesman for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, calling for views on the future of the visits.

The review will look at "the appetite for mandation, the evidence of service transformation and risks to the sustainability of the service," the letter states.

Dave Munday, professional officer at the Unite union's Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association (CPHVA), said he welcomed the early launch of the review. It had originally been planned to start in the autumn.

However, he fears without strong vocal support from service managers and health visitors, the government may abandon the requirement due to its wider strategy of removing regulation around public services.

Munday said that without a requirement in place, cash-strapped councils that commission health visiting services will scale back services, and job losses will be "inevitable".

A reduction in health visiting services could also put added pressure on other children and family services, Munday says.  

"We are also saying that the five visits don't go far enough," he said.

"It is imperative that we look to improve and increase the visits and it is worth noting that in Scotland 11 visits are carried out."

The review team will produce a report in the autumn, which will be presented to ministers.

Last month, the CPHVA said that public health funding cuts had led to a slowdown in the number of trainee health visitor places.

This follows a period of investment in the profession under the coalition government, which narrowly missed its target of recruiting an extra 4,200 extra health visitors by 2015.

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