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Do GPs have a duty to help needy patients get benefits? Yes



GPs across the UK are struggling with the number of requests from patients for assistance in their battle with the welfare system. This strain has increased significantly in recent years as more and more claimants are forced to appeal refusals for benefits after being deemed ‘fit for work’ by ATOS assessments.

This is the situation faced by GPs in Glasgow, particularly the Deep End Group (of which I am a member).

In my area, chronic health problems related to poverty are most prevalent. As a result, the task of helping patients claim benefits related to these health problems falls disproportionately on our shoulders.

There have been attempts to address this increasing strain. Throughout the country, local medical committees (LMCs) are recommending that GPs should concentrate on our core tasks and not be distracted by requests for supplemental information regarding welfare benefits. This would reduce our workload and allow us to treat patients more effectively, but to me, this does a disservice to our most vulnerable patients.

Read the other side of the debate here:
Do GPs have a duty to help needy patients get benefits? No

Reasons to help

Ill doctors know that income inequality and poverty causes ill health. We should also know that alleviating the former is just as important as treating the latter. To this end, ensuring income maximisation for the poorest in the context of severe poverty is a reasonable approach to preventing ill-health.

For benefits claimants, writing them a sincere and authoritative letter to counteract an erroneous DWP decision will determine whether they have enough money to eat well, keep warm and pay their bills, or be forced to forego one or more of these.

It may not be a contractual requirement but it’s a key task in caring for patients.

So why assist a patient who is having an appeal tribunal heard against refusal of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) or Disability Living Allowance (DLA)? The knowledge that we helped a patient win their appeal helps us feel good about our daily work. We also realise that benefit appeals do not just affect the patient involved but also their children or other dependents.

We could think about the doctor-patient relationship as a bank account where goodwill is to be deposited (and withdrawn when things go awry). Missing the opportunity to ‘bank’ goodwill must be the actions of a brave doctor indeed.

Dr Raymond Orr is a GP in Glasgow. This personal opinion piece does not represent the views of the entire Deep-End Group

The full report “DEEP-END Report 21: GP experience of welfare reform in very deprived areas” can be found on: http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_296141_en.pdf, October 2013.