Professor Viv Bennett, BA, MSc, RGN, HV

Doctor of Laws

Thursday 12 February at 11.15am - Orator: Dr Esther Dermott

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor

Professor Viv Bennett’s rise from her first job as staff nurse on a paediatric ward, to health visitor, senior community nurse, and director of nursing in two primary care trusts, seems to have led seamlessly, and entirely appropriately, to her appointment in 2012 as Director of Nursing for Public Health England and the Government’s Principal Advisor on Public Health Nursing; the most senior public nursing position in the country.

Viv trained as a nurse in Oxford in 1976 and worked in children's nursing before training as a health visitor in the early 1980s. She worked as a health visitor and researcher while studying for an undergraduate degree which she completed in 1987, and then completed her Master’s degree in health and social policy here, at the University of Bristol, in 1996.

Viv embodies the idea that academic learning and practical experience need not be in opposition; rather they are necessary complements to each other, especially in her field of nursing and health care.

Despite learning a lot at Bristol that has helped in her career, Viv also strongly values the importance of the ‘on-the-job’ learning she has obtained; from the people who she has cared for and those she has worked alongside.

She remembers as especially important her experience as a student nurse; looking after an elderly gentleman she learnt that delivering first class care involves getting to know patients as people; to quote Hippocrates – “It is far more important to know what person the disease has than what disease the person has”.

She also recalls the surgeon who not only taught her what to do in a hospital theatre but then gave her confidence in her newly developed abilities.

Finally, she shared with me how supporting an extremely poor family who had two children with disabilities, highlighted to her that families – for the most part – really do do the best for their children, even in extreme adversity.

I take these vignettes as exemplifying Viv’s perspective that the daily work of health and care professionals needs to be grounded in understanding the day-to-day lives of patients – their backgrounds, preferences, and concerns – as much as their medical histories.

The social context matters hugely for the experience of care; a theme which will no doubt ring true for those graduating today with degrees in social science.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that while Viv values her Master’s degree for providing a broad understanding of different approaches to care, the standout moment she recalls is the practical experience of a study trip to Budapest and a visit to a centre providing revolutionary care for children with limb damage.

Viv’s current role encompasses providing leadership on public health nursing right across the health and care system, directing the national programme for health visiting, and providing advice to ministers.

She argues that we are now entering the ‘5th wave’ of population health.

The 1st wave was public health works, such as clean water, sewers, and drains.

The 2nd was the discovery of antibiotics, early vaccines, and the ability to treat and prevent infections.

The 3rd was the development of the welfare state and the NHS.

The 4th was addressing lifestyle related non-communicable diseases (such as the impact of smoking).

The 5th wave, occurring right now, involves greater understanding of the social determinants of health and concern with health inequalities.

This ‘5th wave’ relies on bringing together evidence in the areas of neuroscience, childhood studies and health promotion. But, in addition, requires translating that evidence into viable policy, and then - perhaps the most difficult task - devising plans of action. It is the ability to work across these domains successfully that really marks Viv out.

It has been recognised that children’s health in this country needs to be improved; Viv has been forceful and convincing in her argument that it is nurses, midwives and health visitors who are best placed to improve outcomes for children through their ability to offer personalised care. With the aim of improved access, a better experience for families, and a reduction in health inequalities she has overseen a huge increase in the number of health visitors; the aim is to recruit over 4000 in just four years.

Given the competition for resources and the need to liaise with other government departments it is evident that Viv’s position requires working closely and persuasively with other civil servants and government ministers. She tells me that this is where her MSc has provided benefits beyond its academic content; the kudos of a qualification from Bristol, she has found, can help ‘ease’ initial conversations.

Viv also writes a blog and tweets. Perhaps her fondness for social media is no longer unusual. But Viv does more than just ask her twitter followers for occasional advice about vegan Christmas recipes (although she did do that as well!).

Her contributions epitomise ‘electronic government’; specifically the use of social media to communicate new initiatives to health workers across the country and to start conversations about key issues in public health that involve those professionally involved and the general public – whether that is the best way to support new mums with post-natal depression or how to get school children to recognise the importance of brushing their teeth.

Professor Bennett’s passion is for the public’s health. And her view is that creating a culture for health in society involves making the right choices easier. In awarding this degree we wish to highlight Viv’s sustained commitment to improving and extending the care provided within our National Health Service.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you, Viv Bennett, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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