2009: the year OH arrived

So, we near the end of the year of flu pandemic and the publication of the government’s response to the Black report; a year which has included healthy discussions on the Fit Note, General Medical Council (GMC) guidance on confidentiality, the appointment of health and wellbeing co-ordinators, the development of the Council for Health and Work, and the demise of the Royal College of Nursing’s Society of Occupational Health Nursing (RCN SOHN).

Whoever said occupational health was dull?

The ‘year of OH’

Some might say that 2009 has been ‘the year of OH’, with opportunities abundant to raise our profile. With the Fit Notes on the HMSO printers’ ‘to do’ list and plans in place to train GPs in the mysteries of occupational health – what was it that Ramazzini said? The future of OH is ever-developing, and it is good to reflect.

Evidence-based practice, or not, was the question which challenged many to defend their role. We know what we do works, but it’s proving it which seems to be the issue. Perhaps the soon-to-be published Occupational Health Standards for Accreditation for the provision of OH services may help us to assess just what we do, how we provide our services and prove once and for all, that what we are offering is in the best interests of the profession, our clients and our customers.

After all, if there is no evidence base for what we do, then why are we doing it? If there is a robust evidence base, then let’s audit our practice against it to measure the benefits and clinical outcomes.

Back in October, the GMC issued its guidance on confidentiality and made everyone jump with the advice that we should invite the employee to see any report written about them, before it is sent to the employer. Despite much chewing of wasps and panic among some OH professionals, the process has been embraced. But what was the problem – got something to hide?

There has been debate about whether nurses need to comply with GMC guidance, but we work as a local or wider team and we need to do the same. After all, in August yours truly reminded nurses about the Nursing and Midwifery Council guidance on record keeping, so that was your early warning of more to come.

The NHS had its 15 minutes of fame also, with the Boorman report telling us that NHS occupational health services were falling short of providing consistent, high-quality health and wellbeing support. ‘Must do better’ was the conclusion.

Our colleagues in the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health raised the profile of OH in their proposals for a pilot course to help health and safety practitioners play a more active role in helping to support people’s successful return to work following injury or illness. In some quarters this may have been seen as a threat to our role, but stop! Surely the more people who know about the benefits of OH in the workplace the better? So stop worrying, the safety officer is not going to step on our toes. Indeed they are more likely to become an advocate for change, for the better.

Golden opportunities

And so we reflect on the year 2009, the year OH arrived and recognised that so much was owed by so many to Dame Carol Black and her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, whose rallying call to delegates at last year’s RCN OH conference was ‘Lead by example’. But what happened in some quarters? Apathy!

Well don’t let me be the one to say I told you so. The Golden Egg has been hatched and it’s all there for the taking and, as seen on a fridge magnet in a kitchen near you: ‘Threats are opportunities in disguise’. So let’s not lose the opportunity to progress the practice of OH for UK Plc, recession or not.

Looking ahead

As 2010 beckons, what is it to be? What will be the profession’s response to the apparent demise of the RCN SOHN in its current format? Seize the opportunity or cry ‘foul’ and rant like a football manager? Instead, what we should do is to mobilise our efforts in a collective partnership with all those involved in the care of the nation’s workforce. We can’t do it on our own – it needs a team approach. Much like the excellent examples presented in support of Black’s presentation at this years OH conference.

Or is it to be more debates on OH nursing education? The NMC simply don’t get it, do they? But the educators do. The decision by some educators not to seek validation of their courses by the NMC is a message that if nurses are to be seen as fit for practice and to be employable, things have got to change. Otherwise we will end up with a diminishing resource, just at a time when those who employ us are beginning to realise the benefits of OH.

So let’s show that evidence-based OH practice is alive and well, and that we can lead the way in shaping the health and wellbeing of the UK workforce by adopting a collective approach to healthcare management in 2010 and beyond.

Onwards and upwards; let the force be with you.

Graham Johnson, professional OH nursing development manager, Bupa Wellness

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