Dee McGregor wears her vocation’s 150 years remarkably lightly.
She’s a health visitor, team leader for the children and families service at NHS Blackpool, based at Whitegate Primary Care Centre.
Home visitors first pounded the beat in 1862 to improve public health. Florence Nightingale introduced training in the 1890s. The NHS followed in 1948.
They are on the frontline to this day, in people’s homes, community centres, responding to health issues hand in glove with social deprivation, or a more fragmented society.
Infant mortality rates have dropped from 150 deaths for every 1,000 live births in the 1860s to five deaths to every 1,000 live births today.
There’s a big push for 4,200 more health visitors over the next three years nationally.
Breast-feeding rates in England are at their highest - 83 per cent. Mums have seen through the self interest of earlier campaigns to promote alternatives. Means of getting the message across have changed. Blackpool has a breast-feeding peer support team, known as Star Buddies, across Blackpool. Mary Whitmore, one of two infant feeding consultants, is now on with a new Blackpool “Breast Start” app, to reach younger mothers who may prefer to access an online app for help rather than call a health visitor, GP or attend a clinic. It will also feature local breast-friendly cafes.
Blackpool has an Hello Baby scheme to help parents understand their babies’ cries. Health visitors also sit on the board at every children’s centre in Blackpool.
Dee explains: “We are going back to core health visiting values so people can see us ante-natal - when problems like depression can start. We try to keep mums with the same health visitor until the child goes to school.
“Before, health visitors were medically focused. Today’s remit is about relationship building and looking at parenting from a family point of view. In Blackpool the teen pregnancy rates are high so they may not have considered parenting skills or have kin around them for support. We try to get parents-to-be to think about what sort of parents they want to be. They become more confident, more attuned to the baby and able to listen and understand the baby’s needs betters.”
Janette Hopkins, consultant nurse in public health at NHS Blackpool, says early intervention is crucial. “Particularly with troubled families. We now do a routine 24-28 week pre-natal check which we see as two-way, to get to know each other and build up relationships. It’s about more than just taking blood pressure and talking about inoculations.”
Janette recalls how one “disinterested” dad was asked to draw a picture of what his baby might look like - and came up with a picture of a baby playing football.
“There were problems at birth and the baby had to be taken into the special care unit. The dad told the health visitor the picture he had drawn at that pre-natal meeting got him through that difficult time. The baby made a full recovery.”
Senior health visitor Carole Richardson has seen significant improvements since she started in 1978. “Back then we struggled to get mums to breast-feed. Milk companies promoted their products as the best thing for baby. Younger mums didn’t see it as trendy to breast feed. Today they are more positive about it. Most of the young mums round here are prepared to at least try. We do from ante-natal through to going to school, everything connected with a child’s health. Some families don’t have as much support as others do. They may be quite isolated, or in poor housing, or unemployed, quite young. But in the main they want the best for their babies. We signpost them to lots of other help too. The service is 100 per cent better than when I started. It was crisis led then. Not now.”
Blackpool mum Trudy Stocks, 31, admits she turned to Carole when troubled about one of her twins. Trudy, who teaches veterinary nursing part time, says: “My husband Rob and I both work, we have our own house, so I thought we could be forgotten by health visitors. I worried I wouldn’t be able to get help. Some health professionals assume you will cope especially if it’s your second baby.
“I met Carole when I’d just had our first daughter Harriet, now four and a half.
“It was nerve wracking but Carole was very helpful. I knew little about breast-feeding but wanted to try and Carole was pleased about that. The breast-feeding network in Blackpool is fantastic too. I went to see them before I had the twins. I was concerned whether I could cope but they soon allayed my fears.
“Then came the twins, Henry and Ivy, now 19 months old. Carole wasn’t my health visitor but we formed such a close bond that when Ivy was colicky, crying a lot and demanding I went to her for advice.
“She helped me an awful lot, gave me a break, an hour a couple of times a week. She also encouraged me to ask for help.
“It got me through a tough patch. She really went the extra mile and I can’t say how much I appreciate it.”