Why health visiting? Examining the potential public health benefits from health visiting practice within a universal service : a narrative review of the literature

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There is increasing international interest in universal, health promoting services for pregnancy and the first three years of life and the concept of proportionate universalism. Drawing on a narrative review of literature, this paper explores mechanisms by which such services might contribute to health improvement and reducing health inequalities.

Through a narrative review of empirical literature, to identify:

(1) What are the key components of health visiting practice?

(2) How are they reflected in implementing the universal service/provision envisaged in the English Health Visitor Implementation Plan (HVIP)?

The paper draws upon a scoping study and narrative review.

Review Methods
We used three complementary approaches to search the widely dispersed literature:

(1) broad, general search,

(2) structured search, using topic-specific search terms

(3) seminal paper search.

Our key inclusion criterion was information about health visiting practice. We included empirical papers from United Kingdom (UK) from 2004 to February 2012 and older seminal papers identified in search (3), identifying a total of 348 papers for inclusion. A thematic content analysis compared the older (up to 2003) with more recent research (2004 onwards).

The analysis revealed health visiting practice as potentially characterized by a particular ‘orientation to practice.’ This embodied the values, skills and attitudes needed to deliver universal health visiting services through salutogenesis (health creation), person-centredness (human valuing) and viewing the person in situation (human ecology). Research about health visiting actions focuses on home visiting, needs assessment and parent-health visitor relationships. The detailed description of health visitors’ skills, attitudes, values, and their application in practice, provides an explanation of how universal provision can potentially help to promote health and shift the social gradient of health inequalities.

Identification of needs across an undifferentiated, universal caseload, combined with an outreach style that enhances uptake of needed services and appropriate health or parenting information, creates opportunities for parents who may otherwise have remained unaware of, or unwilling to engage with such provision.

There is a lack of evaluative research about health visiting practice, service organization or universal health visiting as potential mechanisms for promoting health and reducing health inequalities. This paper offers a potential foundation for such research in future.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)465-480
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Nursing Studies
Issue number1
Early online date27 Jul 2014
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2015


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