Parents of young children still prefer to ask their health visitor or GP surgery for health advice and support rather than go to Facebook or consult their Red Book – according to the findings of a survey published today by Healthwatch Somerset.

More than 440 people with children under the age of five shared their views and experiences about Somerset’s health visiting service with the county’s independent health and care champion.

Around 60 per cent of those who took part in the survey said they accessed information about their child’s health and development through their health visiting service and GP surgery staff (58%).  The next popular point of call was friends and family (54%), followed by looking in the NHS Red Book (48%) and Facebook (40%).

One first-time mum from Bridgwater said: “I have sought reassurance several times from the health visiting team and every time I have received excellent responses from them.”

However, some parents found it difficult to get appointments or reach drop-in clinics, so would like more information from the health visiting service. One parent of a toddler from Frome said: “It would be nice if there was enough easily accessible and accurate advice readily available. However, too often I’m left with Google which can be confusing, outdated or inaccurate.”

Another from Langport said: “The only time we came into contact with the health visiting team was when I took my baby to the clinic to be weighed.  We have to travel eight miles to clinic which is not really at a convenient time for us and only twice a month.  Several times I made the effort to go and it had been cancelled, just with a note on the door.”

The findings have now been published in a new report which will help to inform the Health Visiting Service team at Somerset County Council on ways to develop services in the county.  Findings have also been presented to the Health and Wellbeing Board and will be shared with the Children’s Trust Board later this year.

The report also reveals:

  • Two thirds of people were satisfied, or extremely satisfied with the level of support they received from the health visiting service.
  • Breastfeeding support was mentioned most frequently as being a helpful source of support offered by the service.
  • A meaningful number of people reported that key contact points were missed or delayed (10%) and that ongoing communication with families did not meet people’s expectations (7%).
  • People would like to see more drop-in clinics and groups that are both accessible and flexible to meet the needs of families. 21% of people told us that they would like to access information about the health and development of their child at local groups.
  • Moving house, premature births, postnatal depression and tongue tie were things that were mentioned several times as having an impact on the experience of the family with the health visiting service.

Emily Taylor, Healthwatch Somerset Manager, said: “This report shows that families still really value the work of health visitors and rely on them for advice and support when raising their young children.

“The main issues raised by parents included the communication from health visiting staff and access to drop-in clinics.  All our findings will now be presented to the team at Somerset County Council who have taken over responsibility for the health visiting service.  We hope that the public view will help to shape and improve the service moving forward and we will be closely monitoring this.”

Somerset’s health visiting service was transferred to Somerset County Council in April this year, six months after an announcement was made that the GetSet services, which provide further support to young children and their families, would be cut across the county.

Healthwatch Somerset approached the council to work together on this project to ensure the public voice was taken into account for future planning of the services.

A spokesperson for Somerset County Council said: “We welcome the findings from Healthwatch’s report on Somerset’s Health Visiting Service.  It’s great to hear many of the respondents were satisfied or extremely satisfied with the service.  The Health Visitor Service transferred to Somerset County Council from Somerset Partnership earlier this year.  We will review the report and continue to work with families, our health colleagues and staff to continue to provide a quality service for parents and families with children under five.”

The full report can be viewed here:

Case study

A family who moved from Scotland to Somerset share their mixed experience of the county’s health visiting service

First-time parents Amber and her husband David moved to Somerset from Edinburgh in the autumn of 2017.  David was offered a permanent position with Somerset County Council and the family moved for job security.  They initially lived in Taunton for 16 months, before moving to Minehead with their toddler son.  Here, Amber (pictured right), 44, describes her mixed experience of the health visiting team in Somerset.

“Our experience of the health visiting service in Taunton was not brilliant.  I had to chase up the GP practice to get their number, when initial registration with the practice wasn’t followed up.  Our son was just one years old and we felt it was important to meet the health visitor to support us in a brand-new area of the country, and as still relatively new parents.

“Eventually the GP surgery arranged for an initial home visit which was fine, and we received literature about clinics and toddler groups.  We went along to a clinic, when our son was 15 months old, to have him weighed and just get to know the service.  The building was difficult to access/navigate to the clinic from the upstairs building entrance.  After waiting and having weighing done, there were no facilities to dispose of nappies.  In a childcare clinic!  We were told to take them home.

“The staff were adequate, did the weighing, but strongly discouraged us from returning again.  They told us they did not need or want to see the child until he was two years old, and we could weigh at home using domestic scales and subtract parent weight if holding child.  Not exactly welcoming or what we were used to in Scotland.”

Two-year check delayed

“We expected to have a review appointment at the actual time when our child turned two, but only found out that this was not the case through initiating contact ourselves or through conversation with other parents.  It’s a bit unsettling when you haven’t had any formal contact since the age of one, and a whole year of life and developments, potential missed milestones pass without any routine checks.

“And then the age two review can be very late, even as much as six months after their 2nd birthday.  And no automatic communication from the team in advance to indicate when it might be taking place.  We actually know of families who never even had the review appointment at all!  We had to phone them about it, and partly motivated by our house move.  Other families may just be trusting and waiting for a letter.

“This area might be not be a top priority for them, but in terms of monitoring child development, or ensuring early intervention with any problems, or just reassurance for parents, it could be improved an awful lot.”

A move to Minehead with better support

“Our health visitor experience in Minehead has been much more positive.  After registering with the GP surgery in new area, the health visitor team called and arranged an initial meeting.  We went along and they were friendly and helpful.

“The lady was very helpful.  She took an interest in myself and saw that I was quite isolated and a stay-at-home parent, with no nearby relatives or friends for a support network, and our discussion allowed her to identify certain pressures and stresses I was experiencing, both from two recent moves, life changes and other issues.

“She referred me on to the Home Start support service.  This was both refreshing as a parent, and the first time I had felt truly supported by the service in our unique circumstances.  I was very pleased with this.”

Amber’s advice to other parents

“I would always recommend other families to try the health visitors for support with relevant issues.  Certainly, those in the Minehead area.  But would caution them to chase things up and go to other sources if they didn’t get responses or help.  You can’t just sit and wait or trust that things are happening properly if you are kept waiting too long.

“I think new families to the area should receive a consistent response from health visiting services wherever they are living in Somerset.  Families need to be reassured that they are in the radar and that their children matter.  They will be supported if they need to be.  Services too patchy or different in different areas.”

Amber’s suggestion for improvements

  • It would be nice to see a dedicated and obvious Health Visitor notice board in each GP surgery, with a dedicated phone line.
  • A weekly health visitor drop-in clinic at surgeries.
  • A visible presence at events for families in the area.