The chair of the RCGP has urged the Government to involve GPs in discussions around plans for the future of fit notes, including possible automatic referrals to ‘life coaches’.
Professor Kamila Hawthorne’s comments came after the Times reported potential Government plans to encourage GPs to refer patients to life coaches and job support schemes instead of signing sick notes.
Ministers have been looking at ways to encourage more people back into work and said this could include changing the design of fit notes issued by GPs, so that they could refer patients to job support schemes.
In February, a Government source said ministers were also considering GP surgeries to station job coaches under plans to get unemployed over-50s back to work.
One option which has been reported as under consideration would see an ‘extra tick box’ in the fit notes layout, which would allow GPs to classify people as potentially able to work with the right help, leading to automatic referrals to job support schemes.
Professor Kamila Hawthorne said: ‘It’s vital that as any proposals on the future of fit notes are developed that GPs and other relevant healthcare professionals, as well as patient groups, are consulted.
‘When making a decision to issue a fit note, the health and wellbeing of an individual patient will be the GP’s principal concern, not meeting Government targets for keeping people in work.
‘Being able to refer patients to employment advisors or coaches as part of the process has merit in principle, but we’d need to understand more about how this would work in practice.’
She said that GPs will need to be assured there will be enough services to meet patient demand and that the process will not cause more work for GPs at a time of intense workload pressure, and that it is having benefit for patients.
‘Some sort of pilot would be necessary before wider roll out,’ she added.
The Government is currently refreshing its guidance on fit notes as part of recent legislative changes and is exploring ways to ‘better promote the fit note as a means of having a work and health conversation that supports those who are at risk’ of falling out of employment.
In May, Government plans to encourage GPs to recommend people with long-term sickness return to work and therefore reduce the number of fit notes, were described as ‘ridiculous’ by the BMA.