The Government’s new Health and Work Service must operate to high standards of practice, be staffed by appropriately trained and qualified professionals and be adequately funded if it is going to be effective and credible, the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) and Faculty of Occupational Medicine (FOM) have said.
In a position paper published in January 2014, the two organisations outlined their thinking around the quality standards required for the new service, which is expected to be piloted from autumn 2014 and then operating nationally from 2015.
They broadly welcomed the establishment of the service, calling it “a positive move towards enhanced access to occupational health support for workers”.
But they emphasised that in order to operate effectively, any new service “must be run by appropriately trained and qualified professionals and adhere to high standards of practice”.
To ensure this, they recommend those organisations awarded the contract or contracts should be accredited with the occupational health (OH) SEQOHS quality kitemark.
“We appreciate that there will be a number of different elements to the Health and Work Service that will include telephone and web-based advice; it is imperative that appropriate standards are applied to all these elements,” the paper stated.
“Those directly involved in the health assessment process should be working for a SEQOHS-accredited provider, have specialist OH training and should be able to refer cases to senior OH professionals and specialists.”
The paper added: “The advice on the website should be approved by a qualified OH professional and regularly reviewed against evidence-based guidelines. We would expect the telephone advice line to be run according to protocols and training devised by appropriately qualified professionals, and that the call operators should have access to senior OH professionals and specialists when needed.
“Given the tiered structure of the service, we also recommend that both the individual elements and the service as a whole are reviewed regularly to ensure standards are being adhered to and that the end-to-end system, for those workers passing between tiers, works effectively in supporting workers back to work where this is possible.”
Separately, in its latest bulletin the NHS Health at Work network has provided an update on the tendering and bidding process for the contracts, which are expected to be awarded in April.
Last year the network confirmed that it had held talks with Capita about bidding to run the service and, in its latest update to members, chair Dr Anne de Bono said: “Good progress is being made on background thinking and 44 services have to date expressed an interest in being involved.”
A briefing note had been prepared for NHS Employers and to generate interest and support from trust chief executives, while a webinar was planned to be held either at the end of January or early in February, she added.
Nevertheless, in a blow to the Government the service has been given the thumbs down by HR managers before it has even launched.
A poll by PMI Health Group has found that more than four-fifths of UK HR managers (86%) are not confident that the service will fulfil their OH requirements. As 81% already provided staff and management with access to an OH service, there were question marks over how useful it would be, and there were concerns over the fact that employees would have to be absent for more than four weeks before the service swung into action.
One-third of the HR managers polled said that they consulted an occupational physician in every case of long-term absence, with more than half doing so occasionally. In cases of short-term absence, 12% always referred employees to an occupational physician and 59% did so occasionally.