GPs in two areas of England and Wales will from today begin referring patients heading for long-term sickness to the Government’s new ‘Fit for Work’ national occupational health service.
Practices across Sheffield and Betsi Cadwaladr in Wales are the first to begin using the service, which will see GPs referring patients who have been – or are likely to be – off work for four weeks or longer for assessment by an occupational health advisor, who will set up a ‘Return to Work’ plan with them.
The service is being run by Health Management, an independent occupational health provider owned by the multinational Maximus. The service will be rolled out to all GP practices in England and Wales by the autumn, the provider said.
NHS England said the service will help to reduce pressure on GPs, as patients referred to the service no longer need to return to the GP to get a fit note signed.
Dr Mike Bewick, deputy medical director at NHS England, said: ‘NHS England welcomes “Fit for Work” as an opportunity to support people working in England and Wales who currently have no access to expert occupational health advice.
‘This service will help GPs provide holistic care to their patients, while reducing the pressure of ill health associated with managing people who become long-term unemployed.’
However, GP leaders have cautioned that the programme is unlikely to help many patients if it relies on telephone support for most cases, as the Government plans.
A GP who led one successful pilot of the service, which saw two-thirds of patients return to work or training, warned most cases were referred for mental health problems that required relatively intensive case management and support.
The Department for Work and Pensions estimates the service should cut sick pay costs to business by between £80m and £165m a year, and boost economic output by up to £900m a year.
Dr Lucy Goundry, clinical lead for the programme, said: ‘GPs are under more pressure than ever to deliver complex services. In such an environment, being able to support patients with high quality occupational health advice that takes a holistic approach will help patients.’