Impact of voluntary accreditation for OH providers

As an example of 1960s modernist architecture it is hard to beat. The harsh concrete lines of architect Sir Denys Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians’ (RCP) building in London have gone from being controversial to embraced by many as being a classic, at least of its time.

It is hoped by occupational health leaders that next month’s formal launch at the RCP of the profes-sion’s new accreditation scheme for occupational health services will, in time, equally be embraced by both the profession and employers and (hopefully) prove not nearly so controversial.

The launch of the voluntary scheme on 1 December 2010 at the Faculty of Occupational Medicine’s winter conference is the next stage after its ground-breaking unveiling of OH standards almost exactly a year ago.

Evaluation scheme

The standards were designed to give both NHS and commercial OH providers a yardstick against which to judge themselves and how they operate. They aim to help practitioners evaluate, and show, that what they are providing is of a high and credible standard.

But moving to a full-blown accreditation scheme is a major step. Yes, it will be voluntary but the reality, as Dr Paul Nicholson, project lead at the faculty and chairman of the British Medical Association’s Occupational Medicine Committee, concedes, is that being accredited will be mandatory, at least if you want to keep landing the business.

He says: “When selecting OH providers employers at first will I suspect be asking what they are doing in terms of implementing the standards and whether they self-assess. But in perhaps four to five years’ time they will ask you if you are accredited,” he points out.

The accreditation process will take two stages. The first is a remote, online process (which will be about 80% of the process) followed by, if need be, a physical inspection.

For the online element, OH providers will be able to upload their evidence and track progress through the accreditation website,, as well as perform a self-assessment and develop action plans.

“When they are ready to go through the accreditation process they can simply inform the office manager. The evidence will be reviewed and they will be told if they are indeed ready, and if so the evidence will be released to the assessors,” says Nicholson.

The assessors and accreditors will be doctors and nurses, who will be trained as auditors. A job specification for anyone interested in applying is also due to be posted on the site.

Assessing facilities

“A single-handed provider with no specific facility or equipment, and which is just providing services to employers, may not need an external visit. But if they have some facilities or equipment, the second part of the audit will be a physical visit,” points out Nicholson.

He adds: “The inspectors will make sure company policies and procedures are being implemented consistently across the organisation, the adequacy of the facilities and the level of equipment. But for a large provider with lots of sites, it may be that the inspection team need not go to every site.”

Range of providers

One possible challenge is that it is estimated it will be feasible to accredit only between 60 and 80 services a year. Of course, there are some 160 to 170 NHS Plus occupational health units and around 100 members of the Commercial Occupational Health Providers Association, in addition to the many independent, often single-handed, practices out there.

Then there will be the cost to consider. There will be five bands, ranging from single-handed up to large OH service with 30 different facilities or more, with the cost of accredit-ation ranging from around £750 to £3,500 a year, estimates Nicholson. Initial funding for the scheme is coming from the Government through NHS Plus. The aim is that eventually it will be a self-funded, subscription-based scheme.

While there will inevitably be questions about cost and timing, most OH practitioners seem upbeat and enthusiastic about the accreditation process, says Karen Talbot, chair of the Commercial Occupational Health Providers Association (Cohpa) and director of occupational health firm Diverse Health Solutions.

She adds: “At Cohpa, we see Seqohs as the way forward. We already have our own standards, so this is something we support. Our members are really keen to do it but, particularly for the smaller providers, there may be a cost perspective.”

NHS Plus director Kit Harling says: “It is an absolutely crucial, absolutely fabulous opportunity to demonstrate what quality occupational health services there are out there. We have never had that opportunity before.

“The standards and the accreditation process have been developed by a wide stakeholder group so we know they will be well accepted. It is exciting for us to be able to demonstrate in an independent way that we can deliver good-quality services.

“Almost exclusively, people are seeing this as an opportunity. But I suspect it may take some time for employers to recognise it. That may not happen overnight.”

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