The Government is urging GPs to start referring patients heading for long-term sickness absence from work to a new national occupational health service.
The new ‘Fit for Work’ service, set up by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), is officially rolled out across the whole of England and Wales from this week, after being piloted in several areas.
Under the scheme, GPs can refer patients who have been signed off work for four weeks or longer, or are likely to be, to see an occupational health specialist.
Patients who agree to referral are then managed by the Fit for Work service to help them back to work or into retraining, so GPs no longer have to sign the patients’ fit note unless the patient is unable to return to work.
The DWP hopes the service will avoid people going on to long-term sickness absence and estimates the the service will cut sick pay costs to business by between £80m and £165m a year. One previous back-to-work GP referral scheme, which was used to inform the national service specification, enabled two-thirds of those referred to return to work or training.
However, the RCGP warned that the national service could be too reliant on telephone rather than face-to-face contacts with patients, and called for an evaluation of the programme.
Dr John Chisholm, health and work lead for the college, said: ‘It is positive that all GPs in England and Wales now have access to the service that is available, but GPs had hoped that Fit for Work would have been more hands-on, rather than relying on telephone contact for the vast majority of patients.’
He added: ‘We look forward to an evaluation of the system to see how it has benefited patients, and hope this will both allay our concerns and provide lessons to improve the service.’
The GPC has also voiced concerns that offering mainly telephone consultations will not be enough for most patients, and warned that GPs will not use the service if they felt it did not offer enough support.
NB 11.00 Fri 24 July – This story has been modified to correct the description of the service from occupational ‘therapy’ to ‘health’