Increasingly in general practice we are seeing patients with mental illness triggered or exacerbated by socio-economic difficulties. We also know that poverty can make the recovery from mental ill health harder. One area where there is increasing evidence of this relationship is in patients who are in debt.
The ‘debt and mental health evidence form’ was developed so that health or social care professionals can provide medical evidence to creditors for patients in debt. It explains how patients’ mental illness and treatments may affect the way they can manage their money or work with the creditors.
With this information creditors can often offer extra support, cancel charges or interest, provide easier repayment terms or in some cases write off debts for vulnerable patients.
Providing this form, either at the request of a patient, or when we identify they have this need, is giving that extra bit of help. Help that, ultimately, will improve the patient’s mental health as well as their finances.
Research from the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute suggests up to a third of GPs charge for this form to be completed. It may be the GP is unaware the patient has been charged for the form to be completed – our receptionists are very good at explaining to patients that forms have a fee, or it may just be that it is easier to stick to the practice policy.
I would encourage those colleagues to review their practice policy, talk to their staff and to do this for no fee. It is illogical for patients who have debt and mental health difficulties to be asked to pay and only adds to their distress and financial difficulty, or results in patients going without the form and the debt support that comes with it. The benefit to patients’ health of having their debts dealt with, is significant.
This week Money and Mental Health received a positive response from health secretary Jeremy Hunt to their request for this to be made a statutory form, saying that he has asked officials to look into how to resolve the issue. I hope he does commit to doing something, but I also hope that, as GPs, we can start this change by ourselves.
We are not debt advisors, and nor should we be, but by taking patients’ financial difficulties and debt seriously, proactively offering help by completing the evidence form for no fee and signposting to free and confidential debt counselling charities, we are treating our patients holistically and in some cases saving lives. Debt really is a sickness of our society, which we can contribute to treating.
- Dr Catherine Norwood is a GP at the King's Family Practice in Kent
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