Why telephone assessments are on the rise in OH

telephone assessments

Telephone assessments are increasingly used to assess patients in the OH industry. Chris Rhodes, chief nursing officer at the Government’s Fit for Work service, explains why.

A review in 2013 led by Kim Burton OBE, an OH consultant and professor, entitled “Telephonic support to facilitate return to work: what works, how, and when?”, was published. The report found that “when well designed and implemented, and with suitable governance, [telephone assessments] compare favourably with face-to-face approaches.”

Although this report was comprehensive in praising telephone assessments, it is understandable that some people are apprehensive about using telephone contact instead of a face-to-face consultation, especially when a person’s health is involved. At Fit for Work, we have been using telephone consultations since the launch of the service and I have seen first-hand that the benefits are varied.

I have worked in OH for a long time – before Fit for Work I worked at a large OH provider with big national clients, including the BBC. I have years of experience with telephone assessments, utilising them very often throughout my career, and I have seen their popularity increase in recent years – with what I believe to be very good reason.

First, a key benefit of a telephone consultation in a return-to-work referral is convenience. A telephone assessment can be conducted at a time that suits the patient. It also means they do not have to travel anywhere for the appointment, which can often be a real blessing for someone struggling with ill health who is currently out of work – they can take the call in the comfort of their own home, and will not have to pay for transport, petrol or parking to make their appointment.

Free Fit for Work roadshows

The Fit for Work team (along with leading experts such as David Frost CBE, Acas, and early adopters of the service) is visiting key parts of the country to:

  • share insights and information on sickness absence;
  • demonstrate how the service works; and
  • discuss the potential for supporting a return to work more quickly, appropriately and at the key intervention point of around four weeks.

The scheme is set to affect employers up and down the country, with businesses now beginning to refer their employees to Fit for Work. The events, which are being held across England and Wales, will look at what these changes mean from a policy and business perspective. More information is available at http://fitforwork.org/employer-roadshow. If you are interested in attending, please email your name and the event you wish to attend to:

  • fitforwork1@munroforster.com (for England); or
  • eoghanmortell@workingwordpr.com (for Wales).

Relaxed environment

The patient being able to speak to a health professional within their own home also means that they are more relaxed – they are in an environment that they are familiar with and feel more comfortable. People can often feel intimidated having to go into a professional environment and talk about what they may see as “trivial” issues. A telephone assessment from home means that they are more likely to open up, about anything from financial to relationship issues, which are all important to know about in order to fully understand exactly why someone is struggling to return to work.

Speed and convenience

As well as being convenient, telephone assessments are also fast. Quick, early intervention in the return-to-work process is key, and conducting assessments by telephone means that we can offer a guarantee of contacting them within two working days, which would be near impossible with face-to-face contact.

Obviously, conducting good telephone assessments requires some training. Good communication skills are absolutely key, and it is important that those speaking to patients on the telephone are well-versed in picking up clues in someone’s voice. During a face-to-face consultation, you would get more visual clues, but I know from first-hand experience that you soon learn to focus more on someone’s speech, and detect the nuances in the way that they talk, which help to give you clues on their wellbeing.

Telephone assessments in a purely health-focused capacity are a completely different topic, and one where face-to-face contact is preferable. But in OH, it is rare that physical examination is helpful, because patients’ GPs would look after the medical management of their case.

Fit for Work focuses on a patient’s functional capacity, which is why we operate a biopsychosocial approach, evaluating all the factors preventing someone returning to work, not just health. In our line of work, telephone assessments provide a fast, convenient and most importantly, suitable, way of assessing patients and helping them return.

Employers and GPs can now both refer their employees and patients to Fit for Work, provided they have been off work for four weeks or more. Find out more at www.fitforwork.org or call the Advice Line on 0800 032 6235. 


About Chris Rhodes

Chris Rhodes is chief nursing officer at the Government’s Fit for Work service.
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