19/08/2016 08:32 BST | Updated 18/08/2017 06:12 BST

Prevention Is Much Cheaper Than Cure: The Value Of Health Visiting

Health visiting is a service many of us should all be familiar with because every family, no matter where in the UK they live, should have been visited by one of these specially qualified public health nurses at one time or another.

They make a vital difference to the nation's health but their futures are currently at risk.

Following cuts to Local Authority budgets in England, there have been cuts to their numbers - 500 posts in 2016 - and the fear is that these are only the tip of the iceberg with potentially devastating consequences for the health of the nation.

Health visitors go straight to the heart of a family to provide them with individualised support and advice. Through this unique relationship, they work to promote healthy ways of living and prevent illnesses - measures that can have long lasting effects on the long term health and wellbeing of children and young people, and to the health service overall.

For new families too, their work is invaluable: helping both mothers and fathers and the wider family through pregnancy, child birth and the early childhood years. Equally key is their role with children, ensuring that all have the best possible start in life, whilst using safeguarding expertise to protect parents and children when they're at risk.

At a time when mental health, obesity, and widespread health inequalities are escalating out of control, health visitors are more crucial than ever. And yet, now is the time that there numbers are beginning to fall - and fast.

Once again, financial decisions are the cause for the drop in a vital service. Since October last year, the responsibility for health visiting, and other children's public health services, has been transferred from the NHS to local authorities; a move which coincided with cuts of £200m to public health budgets. Now straining to make ends meet, it seems health visiting - alongside other key children's services such as school nursing - is under threat.

It's a long way from the days when the Government promised to invest in health visiting. Back in 2011, the Coalition Government launched the Health Visitor Implementation Plan which provided for the training of more than 4,000 additional health visitors by 2015. It was a laudable aim but if the posts are cut, all this funding - not to mention the training and skills - will be wasted.

That's the short term consequence - long term we are likely to see a build-up of a number of health issues that would once have been caught and acted upon by health visitors ending up in GP surgeries and emergency departments. The impact on longer term health, education and social care issues that health visitors aim to prevent is even more difficult to gauge, but is potentially huge. With the health service already under enormous pressure, this makes no sense whatsoever.

Prevention is much cheaper than cure, and yet it is here that services are being cut.

Thanks to the Health Visitor Implementation Plan we have the workforce to really make a difference in the lives of families and children - and to support key Government goals such as tackling obesity and promoting social inclusion.

But if the posts are lost, we will arguably be back to square one.

That's why the RCN, along with organisations like the including the RCPCH, the Queen's Nursing Institute (QNI) and the National Children's Bureau, has written to The Times, in a call on the Government to secure health visitor funding and protect this crucial contribution to health care in the UK.

Because this vital role needs to be protected with the care and the compassion health visitors themselves show their patients each and every day.

Fiona Smith, Professional Lead for Children and Young People's Nursing, and Helen Donovan, Professional Lead for Public Health.