GP helplines for employees can cut absence rates

The spiralling expense of employee absence and ill health is a huge financial burden for business – the CBI estimates that it costs UK industry around £11bn a year.

So employee health plans can be useful not only as a valued perk, but also as a way of encouraging staff to take better care of their health. But with traditional private medical insurance costing up to £800 per employee, most organisations are going for cheaper alternatives.

One growing area of budget health insurance is cash plans. These include dental and optical refund benefits, used regularly by employees, and may also fund some outpatient consultancy time or pay for certain health scans.

With GP waiting lists growing across the country, the latest development in cash plans is a 24-hour GP helpline, which gives busy employees the chance to get an instant answer to health queries or hear an expert second opinion if they want to discuss any health worries or symptoms.

Talking to GPs

Health insurance provider the Hospital Saturday Fund (HSF) is one of the few organisations that has set up such a service. Although the scheme bears some similarities to NHS Direct, HSF stresses that staff don’t talk to nurses – their call is logged, and a GP will then call them back at a convenient time.

All members of the scheme have access to this service, says HSF managing director Keith Bradley. “The call to the GP can be about anything – a diagnosis that has already been made, a pain that won’t go away, questions someone might want to ask before they see their GP or go for a specialist appointment. They can just ring this number.”

Providing reassurance

The line is entirely staffed by qualified GPs. HSF buys the service in from a specialist company called Medical Solutions. One GP is on site, and manages the others. The rest have other day jobs and may phone HSF clients from their own surgery, or from home, within the set hours they are contracted to work.

“The advice they give may in fact be ‘go and see your own GP as quickly as possible’,” says Bradley. “But this telephone conversation may be quicker and easier to get than seeing their own doctor, and provide the reassurance they need.”

The helpline isn’t intended to replace traditional GPs, and anyone with serious health problems will need face-to-face treatment. But HSF stresses that there is plenty of scope for the service to fill the gaps left by a typical NHS consultation.

“People can use the line to supplement what they have been told, if they didn’t get enough time with their own GP, or they didn’t think of the questions they wanted to ask until after the consultation was over,” he says.

HSF already offers clients a medical information help­line, stress counselling help­line and legal helpline, available directly, so adding a GP line was the next logical step. The scheme was introduced in its more expensive schemes in 2005, and made available to all customers in 2006. Feedback so far has shown it is well used. Around 60,000 people have access to the scheme, and in 2006, the helpline received between 50 and 60 calls a month.

Second opinion

“People know they can’t always get information from their own GP when they want to,” says Bradley.

“And a second opinion is appreciated. They know this is a doctor who can explain more, support what their GP has told them, but also give as much time as they want. They can take as long as they need. The GP doesn’t have a pen in their hand, ready to write out a prescription.”

However, such helplines are not a panacea, stresses Paul Avis, corporate development manager, LifeWorks, at HR consultancy Ceridian. In terms of bureaucracy, the employer may have to complete P11D benefit-in-kind tax returns for employees covered in some circumstances.

Helpline limitations

More importantly, employers should be aware of the limitations of GP advice lines. A GP helpline may put an employee’s mind at rest about a particular health concern, but they will still have to wait the usual length of time to see their own GP if further treatment is needed.

“The GP helpline services cannot offer a sicknote service – and for me to get to see my doctor is a week’s wait, and to see another GP in the surgery it’s three to four days,” he comments.

“Employers should ask why they want the service – as the real beneficiary is the employee in such cases.”

Employers need to know why they are using such a scheme and be able to measure the benefits, whether in reduced staff absence or in other terms.

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