A new £265,000 study led by the University of Stirling is seeking to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected health visiting services across the UK, with a view to improving them in the future.
The 18-month project – funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) – will explore the changes that health visiting has experienced over the past two years and provide recommendations to enhance organisation and delivery as part of a strong post-pandemic recovery.
Dr Erica Gadsby, a Senior Lecturer in Public Health from Stirling’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, is Principal Investigator on the new project, which begins today [June 1] and also involves researchers at the Universities of Oxford and Kent.
She said: “Health visiting is a key component in ensuring the health and wellbeing of children across the UK. Following the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, services across the UK had to change and adapt to the situation very rapidly. Many staff changed their roles, some services were scaled back, and others moved to virtual delivery, different professionals worked together in different ways, and everyone had to get used to working with personal protective equipment in all face-to-face contacts.
These are just a few of the ways in which health visiting was affected by COVID-19 and our study is now seeking to understand how we can learn from these experiences to improve service provision as we emerge from the pandemic.”
Dr Erica Gadsby, Senior Lecturer in Public Health from Stirling’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport
Health visiting provides vital support and early intervention to families to prevent or reduce risks to a child’s health or wellbeing. Across the UK’s four nations, devolved government policies and opinions differ as to how services are best organised and delivered, and there is limited research-based evidence to inform what works best where.
The pandemic caused enormous pressure and disruption to child health services, as well as to families and young children, but it also prompted some important innovations in service delivery. The new study will explore how the pandemic affected health visiting services in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, and Wales, with a view to understanding how the organisation and delivery of services can be improved for a stronger post-pandemic recovery.
The researchers will undertake a ‘realist review’, which is a type of theory-driven review of evidence. They will pull together different forms of information related to what has happened in health visiting services since March 2020 and use that to explore how the pandemic has affected services, service providers and families.
The team includes realist review, health visiting and public health experts, as well as a patient and public involvement lead. A stakeholder group – comprising practitioners, commissioners, policymakers, policy advocates, and members of the public – will advise and provide feedback throughout the project.
Dr Gadsby said: “This research is about learning lessons – both good and bad – from the COVID-19 pandemic, within the health visiting context. We will use our findings to recommend improvements to the organisation, delivery and ongoing post-pandemic recovery of health visiting services in different settings, for different groups.
“These improvements will help to make services more efficient and fairer, supporting health visitors and others to deliver the best possible support to babies, young children and their families.”
Co-Principal Investigator Professor Sally Kendall, of the University of Kent, said: “This is a significant study for health visiting and for children and families that will bring a wide range of evidence together to enable us to understand nationally what we can learn about best and future practice in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The team will work closely with the Institute of Health Visiting and the stakeholder group to ensure the findings of the study are developed into a range of outputs suitable for the various stakeholders and disseminated to the appropriate audience.
Alison Morton, Executive Director of the Institute of Health Visiting, said: “Congratulations to the team, led by the University of Stirling, which has been awarded this prestigious NIHR funding.
“The last two years have been a period of tumultuous change, with health visiting services facing significant challenges in their efforts to support babies, young children and families. Health visitors responded rapidly with service innovations, but many of these adaptations have not been tested in the health visiting context and their impacts are largely unknown.
“This much-needed realist review will help us to gain a greater understanding of the pandemic response in order to learn lessons that can be applied to future emergencies, as well as strengthening the evidence base to support the embedding of new innovations and ways of working.”
Dr Gadsby is supported on the project, Realist Review: Health Visiting in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic Experience (RReHOPE), by Professor Kendall; Dr Geoff Wong and Ms Claire Duddy (both of the University of Oxford, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences); and Mrs Madeline Bell (expert by experience).