Covid-19 may be bringing with it massive challenges, but the pandemic also means occupational health ‘has never had a better opportunity’ to demonstrate its value to the workplace and to employers, a leading OH practitioner has said.
Dr Shriti Pattani, chair of the NHS Health at Work Network and clinical director at London North West University Hospitals NHS Trust, used a webinar this week to emphasise that navigating the pandemic could potentially bring with it reputational benefits for OH.
“I think there has never been a better opportunity for us to demonstrate the value that a well-resourced occupational health service can bring, and our special skills in actually managing and supporting and assessing the fitness to work of our workforce,” she told attendees to the webinar on OH and Covid-19 organised by SOM (the Society of Occupational Medicine) and the Royal College of Nursing.
“Certainly, I know that in the NHS occupational health has had a very high profile and we’ve had many staff who have been redeployed in my service. We went from 12 staff to 36 within two weeks to deal with Covid hotlines, swabbing, antibody testing, risk assessment, now track and trace and the big asymptomatic staff testing programme that is starting,” she said.
“Nationally, certainly, there is more of a focus on investing in occupational health. So, I hope this might be a real opportunity for occupational health to be recognised as an important speciality [sic] in its own right, and an investment made in occupational health services,” she added.
At her trust demand for risk assessment had also soared, Dr Pattani pointed out, with the OH team receiving some 1,350 risk assessment requests in the past month alone.
Dr Pattani highlighted that practitioners would “later in the year” see the launch of a new government-backed national clinical assessment toolkit to help assess clinical vulnerability.
“The idea is that we can actually give our patients, our workers, a consistent approach to assessing their clinical vulnerability. And, as healthcare practitioners – GPs, specialists and OH practitioners – we can all sing from the same hymn sheet and give our patients and our workers the same clinical risk advice,” she said.
Dr Pattani’s comments echo predictions by former SOM president Dr Paul Williams that the increased focus on, and expectations around, managing employee health during and after the pandemic would be an opportunity for OH, but could also have a potential for reputational risk.
Finally, the webinar polled participants on how they felt OH professionals would be involved, and where they would most add value, if there was a second wave of Covid-19 this autumn.
The majority (90%) said return to work would be the key area, along with case management and managing sickness absence (84%), managing and supporting mental ill health (79%) and leading on risk assessment (78%).