Health visitor cuts spark surge in GP workload

More than two-thirds of GP practices have seen a surge in demand for post-natal care traditionally provided by health visitors, according to an Independent Nurse survey.

71% of the 474 GPs who answered the survey say their practice has seen an increase in young mothers seeking help with problems such as post-natal depression, sleep disorders and feeding problems.

Others say they have found themselves weighing babies, or simply being asked to provide emotional support.

Howard Catton, head of policy at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said the findings highlighted the consequences of the collapse in health visitor numbers. ‘When primary care organisations (PCOs) are looking for cuts, they look at the more expensive nurses very early on,' he said.

‘There isn't the recognition of the value that they have in terms of prevention.'

Many PCOs and SHAs have frozen the recruitment and training of health visitors in recent years in an attempt to cut costs. But some GPs told Independent Nurse they felt they were not well qualified to offer young mothers advice.

Others were concerned that they could not fill health visitors' child protection role.

‘Our PCT views health visiting as a service that can be reduced or stopped altogether,' wrote one. ‘I don't agree. They're a vital first line in trying to prevent more Baby Ps.'

Some also warned that cuts in health visitors were a false economy.

Appointments with GPs are likely to cost the NHS more than those with a health visitor. Also the shortage of health visitors will make it harder to deliver the government's public health agenda.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, a GPC member, said the decline in numbers in London meant that fewer children had access to health promotion programmes such as the MMR vaccine.

‘Unfortunately, the government hasn't seen the link between health visitor numbers and immunisation rates,' he added.

Cheryll Adams, lead professional officer at the Community Practitioners' and Health Visitors' Association (CPHVA), said that health visitors also saved other public services money, by tackling emotional problems early on. ‘A happy child will embrace education, and is less likely to go off rails as teenagers,' she said.

But she added that, even if the government were to commit to tackling the issue now, training a new generation of health visitors would likely take five years.

Ms Adams added: ‘We welcome the new GP findings in as much that it gives further evidence to our campaign to restore the UK's health visiting service for the benefit of families and communities.

‘We are unsurprised by the effects of health visitor cuts on GP workloads with young families, as this was predicted four years ago when the serious cuts started.

Many GPs who answered the survey praised the work health visitors do in difficult circumstances, and called for higher pay.

Support for the service was not universal, however.

‘Health visitors frequently increase our workload and don't seem to be able to cope with even simple matters on their own,' wrote one. ‘Unfortunately they are usually not good value for money.'

  • Is the health visitor shortage increasing your practice's workload?

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