NHS OH departments not immune to cuts, says NHS Plus director

It is almost inevitable that some NHS occupational health departments will have to close or be merged over the next couple of years as government spending cuts bite, according to the outgoing director of NHS Plus.

Despite the ring-fencing of NHS spending in the Comprehensive Spending Review last month,
Dr Kit Harling told Occupational Health that practitioners should still expect a tough few years ahead.

He said: “We are not immune to what’s going on in the rest of the world and we have got to look at our costs and provision of service. We will need to be looking closely at everything we do and whether it adds value.”

“We should probably expect we will need to be taking some costs out. Do I think there will be 165 units in two years time? The answer has to be no.”

While media attention was on the overall impact of the Comprehensive Spending Review, the full picture will emerge only once departments have done their own intense number-crunching, added Harling, who is set to retire in January after working as the network’s part-time director since 2002.

Harling also said that the network had been carrying out a recruitment drive and now has some 152 departments, or around 90% of NHS OH units, signed up.

“We have also been finding that some departments have quietly disappeared, because there is no central record. We normally say there are 175 departments but it is probably more like 165 in reality,” he added.

In September it emerged that NHS Plus is to rebrand itself as the NHS Health & Work Provider Network, in the process splitting its commercial activities from its work to improve the health and wellbeing of NHS staff.

A new constitution is being drawn up, with the aim that it will be formally launched in April next year.

Harling said one of the biggest achievements of the network so far was in simply raising the profile of the profession and what it could do.

He explained: “For the first four years, to be honest, it was quite difficult to get anyone to take much of an interest in OH.

“But things began to change after 2005/06, especially as more evidence began to emerge of the benefits of good work to good health. I think we are now in a strong position to respond to the changing circumstances.

“Eight to 10 years ago, people were just not talking about OH and now they are. That in itself is a real achievement,” he added.

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