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The potential of ecological theory for building an integrated framework to develop the public health contribution of health visiting

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In line with recent UK and Scottish policy imperatives, there is increasing pressure for the health visiting service to assume an enhanced role in improving public health. Although health visiting has so far maintained its unique position as a primarily preventive service within the UK health service, its distinctive contribution now appears under threat. The continuing absence of a comprehensive and integrated conceptual basis for practice has a negative impact on the profession’s ability to respond to current challenges. Establishing an integrative framework to conceptualise health visiting practice would enable more sensitive, focused and appropriate research, education and evaluation in relation to practice. Work in this area could thus usefully contribute to the future development of the service at a difficult time. Our paper aims to make such a contribution. In support of our conceptual aims, we draw on a study of health visiting practice undertaken within a large conurbation in central Scotland. The study used a mixed method, collaborative approach involving 12 audio-recorded and observed health visitor–client interactions, semi-structured interviews with the 12 HVs and 12 clients, examination of related documentation and workshops with the HV participants. We critically consider prevalent models of health visiting practice and describe the more integrative conceptual approach provided by Bronfenbrenner’s ecological, ‘person-in-context’ framework. The paper subsequently explores relationships between this framework and understandings of need demonstrated by health visitors who participated in our study. Current policy emphasises the need to focus on public health and social inclusion in order to improve health. However, if this policy is to be translated into practice, we must develop a more adequate understanding of how practitioners work effectively with families and individuals in a sensitive and context-specific manner. Bronfenbrenner’s framework appears to offer a promising means of building on the current strengths of the health visiting service to further develop a ‘person-in-context’ approach to health improvement that is mindful of and responsive to multiple, inter-related influences on health. We therefore recommend further research to directly test the utility of this framework.
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Keywords: community nursing; health visiting practice; public health nursing; working with families and children

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Glasgow, Scotland, UK 2: School of Nursing, Midwifery & Community Health, Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow, UK

Publication date: November 1, 2009

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