Practices will be able to refer patients off sick for four weeks or more for occupational health support under a scheme being rolled out by government departments including the DH and the Department of Work and Pensions.
According to the DH, the Health and Work Service will begin in 2014. 'It will help people who have been on sick leave for four weeks get back to work by providing a return to work plan,' according to a DH statement. 'Advice for GPs, employers and employees will be available at any time during the absence and additional help will be available for more complex cases.'
Occupational health GPSI and Leicestershire Fit for Work clinical director Dr Rob Hampton backed the scheme.
‘It is a good thing – you can prevent 40% of people getting onto benefits if you deal with health issues early. That is the premise behind this scheme.’
But Dr Hampton said the scheme could go further. It will apply at this stage only to patients who volunteer to be referred.
However, he said that a pilot in Leicestershire had found that one in eight patients off sick had no intention of returning to work, and one in 15 employers had no intention of taking them back.
Nonetheless, the ability to refer patients on the NHS for occupational health support was welcome, he said. ‘It’s what we have been fighting for.’
But he warned that some of the people GPs find hardest to deal with are not covered by the scheme.
‘This scheme is purely for people who are in work. But people appealing welfare benefit assessments – lots of people are applying and not getting it – are an increasing burden on GPs who feel ill-equipped to deal with their cases,’ he said.
‘If you asked GPs who they would prefer to be able to refer to occupational health between those in work or on welfare benefit, they would refer the latter.’
Dr Hampton said he hoped the scheme would ‘prove its worth’ and pave the way for a follow-up that allowed GPs wider referral options.