HEALTH visitor vacancies have increased by more than 50 per cent in the past year amid fears that the target to boost numbers by 500 before the end of this year will fall short.

Official statistics show that there were 144 health visitor posts were empty in December 2017, up from 93 in December 2016.

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It means that nearly one in ten (9.1 per cent) posts is vacant, up from four per cent in December 2015.

The vacancy rate has risen despite the actual number of health visitors working in Scotland increasing as recruitment of new staff has been unable to keep pace with the numbers leaving or retiring from the profession.

Ellen Hudson, associate director for the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland, said: “New health visitors have been recruited and more are being trained.

"But the high levels of vacancies within health visiting teams across Scotland means that this crucial workforce is not yet at a stable and sustainable level.

“The recruitment and retention challenges being faced in other parts of the NHS workforce are magnified for health visitors by the fact that so many are approaching retirement age.”

Health visitors are qualified registered nurses or midwives with specialist qualifications in public health nursing. They support and advise families from the birth of their child until the age of five.

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However, the health visitor workforce is older on average than nursing and midwifery.

Nearly half of health visitors in Scotland are aged 50 or above compared to 33 per cent of the total NHS nursing and midwifery workforce.

In 2014, the Scottish Government announced £40 million to fund the creation of 500 new health visitors by 2018 - taking the total to more than 1600 - as part of a strategy to reduce health inequalities.

Between March 2015 and December 2017, the headcount for health visitors in Scotland has expanded from 1155 to 1448.

However, there are concerns that the 500 target will be missed.

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Scottish Conservative public health spokeswoman Annie Wells said more efforts were needed to recruit additional health visitors not just to provide better care for patients across Scotland, but to take the strain off those already struggling with a hefty workload.

She said: “The SNP made a promise to secure 500 extra health visitors, a commitment we welcomed, but it looks like that is going to fall short.

“For any department to have a vacancy rate of nearly 10 per cent is alarming, and shows the strain workers must be under.

“It follows a pattern across health and other public services of not enough staffing and poor workforce planning.

“Health visitors are crucial for a range of needs in our society, it’s not something we can afford to scrimp on.

“The SNP should come clean about progress on this target, and explain how it’s going to secure the additional 500 health visitors it promised.”

Health Secretary Shona Robison said: “We are providing funding to health boards to achieve an unprecedented 50 per cent increase in the health visiting workforce and we are on track to deliver 500 health visitor posts by the end of 2018, with over 480 students having completed training and 287 actively in training to December 2017.

“We are working closely with health boards to monitor progress, and health boards are accounting for retirals and leavers as part of that process.”