Staying in touch has never been so important

Posted by Dan Breslin / Thursday 18 August 2016 / Early intervention

There are more ways to keep in touch with friends and family than ever before. From what the old fashioned email to Whatsapp to Snapchat to Instagram.

There are seemingly a thousand ways to share your latest news, stories or ask for some help and advice.

For parents, with young children keeping in touch with those that can help out is really important. Of course, this means family and friends. But it also means local early years workers and in particular health visitors –who are able to provide top tips, pick up on signs of any emerging problems and get parents a little extra help if they need it. They also work closely with specialist services, like children’s speech and language therapists.

But for parents and health professionals, staying in touch might be about to get that bit harder.


What is happening now?

At the moment health visitors will visit parents with children under two-and-a-half at least five times from the antenatal period onwards. In some areas, health visitors might even visit families more than that.

These five visits are called universal appointments and are required by law. This has been in place for a couple of years to make sure that all parents and young children get the same level of support.

But that could be about to change.

The Government has commissioned a review of universal appointments. They want to know where there is still a need to make it a legal requirement.

The review may keep the five assessment, recommend reducing the number of appointments required by law, or introducing guidance to highlight their value, but not keeping the legal requirement to undertake them.  

Removing the need to undertake assessment will give local authorities greater freedom to set up health visiting teams so they can best support families. This looks good on paper. But when you look at this in the wider context of changes in other local services it becomes more worrying. 

So what is the problem?

Children’s centres used to provide a variety of classes, services and programmes that any parent could drop in and use. Classes like baby massage and Stay and Play. These were a great way for parents to meet other parents and get to know health and early years professionals.

Children’s centres have become increasingly targeted at higher need families as budgets have shrunk. This means those drop in classes are being reduced or scrapped all together.

This makes health visitors appointments even more important. They are now the only guaranteed contact points between professionals and families with very young children.

But if these visits are no longer taking place, and children’s centres don’t have services that can step into the gap, how are parents going to stay in touch with professionals who can help them if things aren’t quite right? How are we going to pick up minor problems which would benefit from early support to stop them escalating?

The answer is it will get a lot more challenging.

There is a real risk that families that don’t already have high needs will fall off the radar. Making it almost impossible to deliver effective early help.

baby with walker frame

What can be done?

There are budget pressures on local health teams that make things all a bit trickier. With a £160 million cut to public health grants in the next two years, health visitor budgets are under the microscope. Local authorities, who are responsible for health visitor services, are in an unenviable situation.

But what about the longer-term cost of the problems that will go unnoticed and ultimately unaddressed if checks are scaled back? Catching problems early will bring savings in the long-term.

There is a difficult balancing act between local freedoms, making sure there is a consistent level of service for families and getting families the help they need. It isn’t easy.

But we can’t run the risk of losing health visitor assessments. Not without other services ready to pick up the responsibility for reaching out to local families.

The answer may lie in a finding a middle ground.

The Government could demonstrate their ongoing commitment to health visitors by keeping a set number of assessments in law. These could be less than the current five and even be set at times the local authority believes would be best.

There could be increased flexibility by letting local authorities decide which professionals undertake the different assessments at different times so not to stretch health visitor services. There could even be optional additional assessment recommended by government for families with more complex needs.

In a world where there are plenty of ways to stay in touch, for families and young children, we have to make sure an old fashioned face-to-face is still an option.