This paper explores the variable provision of English health visiting services, despite government emphasis on the need to reduce health inequalities through early interventions and provide support to families with pre-school children.Background
There is increasing evidence of the importance to later health of early child development; that is from prenatal to eight years of age. In this population group, the strongest evidence for health improvement emphasizes support for families (especially mothers) until the infant is at least two to three years of age. In the last four to five years, English government policy has focused strongly on this important life stage, particularly noting its relevance in reducing health inequalities. Simultaneously, the health visiting workforce, arguably the occupational group most closely associated with this form of work, has reduced by 10%; and there is evidence of extreme variability in the way services are provided across the country.Methods
Three sources of data were analysed to discover whether the variation in health visiting services relates to need, levels of deprivation or whether other factors are influential in planning provision. The ratio of health visitors to pre-school children was mapped to indices of multiple deprivations across 144 Primary Care Trusts. Survey data were examined for evidence of links, or not, to levels of deprivation and, finally, 30 Children and Young People’s Plans (CYPPs) were analysed to explore strategic planning about the distribution and type of services.Findings
Health visiting service provision appears unrelated to areas of deprivation; although, the survey data offered some evidence that individual practitioners focused efforts on the most deprived clients on their caseloads, regardless of location. At a strategic level, the CYPPs made little mention of pre-school children or their needs and offered only limited descriptions of preventive health services. Policy recommendations are made about strengthening service provision in this field.