A dataset that lets researchers explore health visiting services for children under 5 years old has been tested by a team at University College London for the first time. They found that the dataset contains just under half of all mandated health visiting contacts that families across England received between April 2016 and March 2020. Even though the dataset does not include all contacts, it is a promising start to help understand and improve health services for children under 5.

Health visiting is a community public health service offered to all families with babies and children under 5 years aimed at improving child health and reducing inequalities. Services offer five mandated contacts to all families between pregnancy and when the child is 2-2½-years old, plus additional contacts for families who need support for specific areas such as breastfeeding or sleeping.

Health visiting teams keep records of all the contacts they have with families which they use internally so that they can provide the best service to families. In 2015, NHS England set up a nationwide dataset which would bring together data from all health visiting services across England in one place. This dataset is called the Community Services Dataset. It is the first opportunity to look at all NHS health visiting services for children under 5 nationally. Researchers can request access to these data, which could open many new doors to health research about families with young children.

Because this dataset is quite new, it is important to explore the data first and check if they are accurate and reliable before using them to answer research questions. It is known that health visiting teams face some challenges when sharing their data with NHS England. The researchers found that this meant that not all the health visiting activity carried out across the country is available in the dataset.

The researchers also found that the information included in the dataset was mostly representative of the whole of England, giving us more confidence that the data can be used accurately for research, although there are still health visiting contacts and children that are missing from the dataset. This means that it may be harder to generalise any research findings to health visiting services beyond those included in the data.

Professor Katie Harron, one of the researchers on the study, said “The Community Services Dataset provides huge potential for understanding health visiting services for children under 5, and to generate evidence which can be used by health visiting teams and policymakers to improve services for families in the future. National administrative datasets such as the CSDS are really important, and we’ll continue to realise value of the CSDS as the dataset matures and completeness and quality improves.”


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Dr Amanda Clery, research fellow, UCL Institute of Child Health, London, UK

Clery, A., Bunting, C., Liu, M., Harron, K., Woodman, J. and Mc Grath-Lone, L. (2023) “Can administrative data be used to research health visiting in England? A completeness assessment of the Community Services Dataset”, International Journal of Population Data Science, 8(5). doi: 10.23889/ijpds.v8i5.2385.