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Lee Emmett, Head of Sanctuary Allied Health, looks at how occupational health services such as physiotherapy can help reduce sickness absence rates in the NHS, keeping nurses, doctors and other key health workers healthy and productive.


As someone who works closely with NHS staff at all levels, I have often pondered that age-old question, "Who heals the healers?" With sickness rates amongst health workers standing at around 4% (roughly in line with the national average), and the NHS being the country's biggest employer, it seems something of a 'no-brainer' to use some of its own excellent occupational health (OH) expertise to get staff back to work as quickly as possible. It may divert resources away from patient care in the short term, but it's about taking the long view. Reducing sickness absenteeism could significantly help to relieve pressure on stretched staff and improve services.

In 2009 the Boorman Review concluded that 'NHS organisations must invest in the health and well-being of their workforce if they are to deliver sustainable, high-quality services'. Many healthcare managers were clearly inspired by this report and it's good to see major improvements in access to OH services for health workers right across the UK. 

For example, Nottingham University Hospital's NHS Trust operates a Staff Occupational Therapy Service for any of its 13,000 employees suffering from musculoskeletal (MSK) injuries. And in 2013 the Academic Health Science Network awarded a grant to Sheffield Hallam University to deliver workplace wellness services within the NHS for the Yorkshire and Humberside region.

In fact, other trusts were ahead of the curve, including Winchester and Eastleigh Healthcare, which as far back as 2006 piloted a scheme to give employees fast track access to physiotherapists. Although the scheme was not carried forward when the pilot concluded in 2008 because of lack of funding, it was resurrected in 2010. 24 of the 86 staff referred for physiotherapy during that year reported that access to the treatment prevented them from taking a leave of absence.

It all makes perfect sense. Recent freedom of information requests have revealed that around 6,000 NHS staff in England miss work every day due to MSK problems. That's one in every six absences and the average trust lost nearly 14,000 days. There's much reliable evidence to show that early intervention can improve outcomes and get MSK sufferers back to work quicker. It's well established in the commercial world that physiotherapists play a vital role in occupational health teams, working alongside other professionals such as occupational therapists, doctors, nurses, speech therapists and dietitians.

The Government is clearly committed to the idea of improving access to OH services for NHS employees, who in total number a staggering 1.3 million. It has set up NHS Health at Work, a network of OH teams dedicated to ensuring that the NHS has a 'healthy, motivated workforce able to provide the best possible patient care'. "NHS staff work in difficult and complex conditions that may be full of risk," wrote Dr Anne de Bono, the Network's Chair, in a 2013 letter to the British Medical Journal. "We need to recognise, value and reward their contribution, not least by ensuring that they are healthy, well and looked after."

Are you a physiotherapist, occupational therapist or other healthcare professional with views on the issues raised in this article? Please leave your comments below.

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