There is a 'real need' for health visitors to receive better education and training to enable them to develop practice, according to the National Nursing Research Unit at King's College London.
The DH Policy Research Programme commissioned independent report, Why Health Visiting? which concluded the academic infrastructure for health visiting needs support and action to develop from its 'current very low base'.
The DH has committed to increasing health visitor numbers by 4,200 by April 2015, but the report urges commissioners to write service targets (key performance indicators) and commission services in a way that acknowledges the need for health visiting flexibility in meeting parents' needs. It also recommends a planned period of continuing professional development, following qualification as a health visitor.
The report questions the success of recruitment and preparation strategies for student health visitors as well as their continuing professional development, suggesting these do not take account of the values, skills and attitudes embedded in the health visiting 'orientation to practice'.
It said the health visiting service should be planned and organised as a 'single, holistic form of provision' and consideration should be given to how best to formalise use of the titles 'health visitor' and 'health visiting' to avoid confusion.
Cheryll Adams, founding director of the Institute of Health Visiting, said: 'I hope these recommendations are taken seriously; there has been a lack of research underpinning this profession. There must be national competencies and ministers should consider this report
A DH spokesman welcomed the report, but was unable to outline any actions it intended to take.