The amount of experienced occupational health therapists available is "not enough to meet the timescale" of the government's new health and work scheme, an independent occupational health adviser says.
According to an occupational health (OH) expert, while the experience pool is widening, (physiotherapists, vocational rehab consultants and occupational therapists will be included), there were not enough to meet the government's deadline.
Earlier this month COVER's sister title WSB revealed the expected operational guidelines for the service, although the Department for Work and Pensions has yet to officially unveil it.
The back to work service was originally proposed in the Black-Frost sickness absence review in 2011 and was intended to be launched in October 2014. The service was proposed with the intention of providing a return to work plan for employees who had been off work through ill health for more than four weeks.
However, it now appears likely to be a staged roll-out beginning in October 2014.
Speaking at a Westminster Employment Forum titled Health and wellbeing at work - the future for sickness absence policy, Split Dimension director and independent OH adviser Lindsey Hall raised issue with the announcement that the majority of assessments will be conducted over the telephone.
"When you are talking to someone over the phone about their health, that's fine, until you try and relate it to something. The moment you try and relate it to capability in the workplace you need to know what that workplace looks like," he said.
"You need the information so you can advise HR managers about capability to do those things. If you don't have that level of knowledge and you don't have a good clinical background then any report and any advice that you provide is likely to be templated rubbish."
Explaining that the "world of occupational health could be very different in a few years time", Hall said that the new service was not about "proper occupational health". He added that OH included a whole raft of things other than just absence management, such as workplace design and health surveillance, which were not part of the service and probably were not designed to be.
In terms of who will be providing the service, Hall warned that it should not be contracted out to one single, big provider and said that there was a danger it could leave a large number of people in the occupational health industry unemployed.
"I don't think one big provider will have the capability to employ enough people and do the job itself. It's just too big. If it does, it will take a huge number of people out of a profession and that will have a massive impact as well. I think any big national service will be dumbed down and crumble under its own weight to the bureaucracy of scale," Hall said.
"Far better in my view to let the GPs and clinical commissioning groups have a chunk of the money and the ability to go and engage with local providers, big or small. That way the occupational health services will grow, the occupational health business will grow and will continue to innovate and that will lead to much better occupational health engagement for all of us."
New management team
Parts One, Two & Three
'Flexibility and choice can often reduce the cost of employee health cover'