GP leaders backed the wider roll-out of the scheme – which has been operating in parts of England for some time.
But they called for a guarantee that the referral process to the scheme would be simple and quick, and expressed disappointment that the scheme would be accessible only by telephone for most patients.
The government says 815,000 people each year have sickness absence from work of four weeks or more. Many need help to avoid becoming unable to return to work.
The Fit for Work service offers ‘an in-depth assessment, followed by a personalised return to work plan and managed support’ to help patients return to work.
Patients referred by GPs should have a consultation with an occupational health professional within two working days.
Dr John Chisholm, RCGP health and work lead, said: ‘Access to occupational health services is important for GPs and patients, and support and resources are welcome.
‘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.
‘At a time when GPs are under a lot of pressure it is important that the referral system is as simple as possible.
‘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.’
Dr Lucy Goundry, Fit for Work clinical lead at Health Management Limited, which will deliver the new service, said: ‘GPs have long called for such a service and we are delighted to be able to provide an independent referral service that will make occupational health support accessible to the wider working population as well as provide a vital line of support for GPs in England.’