GP leaders said that the results reflected the lack of publicity the scheme had received.
In the poll of 425 GPs, carried out by GPonline on behalf of People Management magazine, 65% of GPs said they had not used Fit for Work in the past year. Of those who had used the scheme, 40% said that no one they had referred had successfully returned to work.
The results suggest that lack of awareness of the scheme among GPs is the main reason behind the low take-up. Many GPs responding to the poll said they had never heard of Fit For Work and they were also unclear about the programme’s effectiveness.
Three out of five GPs said they were not sure how effective Fit For Work was at reducing long-term sickness absence, while 15% described it as very ineffective. Less than 1% described it as highly effective, while 9% said it was slightly effective.
Dr Nigel Watson, chief executive of Wessex LMC, said the numbers reflected the lack of publicity the scheme had experienced. ‘If you see there’s a benefit to you and your patient, you’re more likely to use it,’ he said.
Fit for Work
Fit for Work is a government-funded initiative that aims to help people on sickness absence back into work and also provide support for people in work with health conditions. Both GPs and employers can refer individuals onto the scheme with their consent.
One GP respondent to the survey said Fit for Work had been 'poorly "sold" to GPs' and there had been 'nonexistent re-promotion or feedback. A good idea set to founder on the rocks of indifference and poor marketing.’
Another said: ‘There has been a lack of information on how to use it, hence the underuse. I looked online but was no wiser and am unaware of any local information.’
Among GPs who had referred to the scheme there was also concern about its effectiveness and the criteria for referral.
One GP said: ‘[Patients] just get told to come back and get a sick note, or don't get any useful help.’
Another added: ‘I'm not sure this has been very helpful. There are more problems with patients on long-term sick than patients off for four weeks.’
While another GP said: ‘We need a similar scheme for people who have been off work for extended periods of time, the criteria makes it so that most of my patients are ineligible.’
Fit for Work launched in 2015 and is available across England, Wales and Scotland. GPs can refer patients who have been, or are likely to be, absent from work for four weeks and have a reasonable prospect of returning to work to the scheme.
A specially-trained health professional will then carry out an occupational health assessment either by phone or face-to-face and draw up a tailored 'return to work plan'. The plan replaces the need for a GP to sign fit notes during the period it covers.
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions, which runs the scheme, said: 'Having a disability or a health condition should not dictate the path a person is able to take in life – or in the workplace.
'We’ve recently consulted on new proposals to help people with long-term conditions reap the benefits of work and improve their health, and as part of this we are looking at the best ways to support people in this position back into work'