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5 reasons NOT to write for GP Reports-Use Occupational Health instead

Published on 24 Jul, 2015
Jean Fisher
Content Manager

Are you a Manager or HR Adviser who regularly writes for GP reports because you feel you need further information on an employee’s medical condition in order to make a decision on how to manage sickness absence? Do you receive the report and then find it only gives you the information you already know? Or else it’s just full of medical words you then have to try and interpret?

Here are 5 reasons not to write for GP reports and advice on an alternative approach which will give you more information and better outcomes when managing workplace absence.

  1. The GP is the Patient’s advocate, not yours.

In my experience, non-medical people writing for a GP report are mostly wasting their time as the report will only tell you what you know already through your conversations with the employee. Yes, I know that seeking further medical evidence is advised in your management of absence procedures, but I do not believe writing to a GP will give you anything other than a report which only gives the employee’s perspective on their medical condition. Once that is written in a report, it can sometimes ‘stranglehold’ the employer into a corner it is difficult to get out of without being seen to be unreasonable. Remember the GP is the advocate of the patient and may give you this type of advice:-

‘If Mrs Jones could be given a job nearer to home with light duties and reduced hours, I am sure she would be able to return to work’

2. It won’t help you to make appropriate reasonable adjustments.

Reasonable adjustments are required if a condition may be likely to fall under the provision of the Equality Act 2010. This is however ultimately a legal and not a medical decision. Identifying what your obligations are in terms of disability legislation can be complex and the tribunals are busy with cases where employers have looked at what the employee can’t do, rather than what they can.

GP reports do not generally offer much helpful advice in this area and employers can easily fail to make simple adjustments just because they have not been given enough guidance on what can be done in the workplace to increase the capability, or ‘workability’ of employees with a medical condition.

If for example there is a diagnosis of bi polar depression or endometriosis can you be absolutely sure that you are aware of all reasonable adjustments possible for these conditions? Fitness for work is about capability and not disability and the majority of GPs do not have enough knowledge of the workplace and diseases of occupations to provide a report which can be used by employers to manage a case forward with confidence.

  1. You are not complying with the Data Protection Act

If you are writing for medical reports, then you will receive sensitive data i.e. medical information. Data protection legislation places additional obligations on an employer to protect sensitive personal information. This is information about employee’s physical and mental health and therefore sickness records and sick notes count as sensitive personal information. This information should be stored separately from personnel records and access should be restricted and it should also be password protected if stored electronically. Writing for GP reports and storing in personnel records poses an additional responsibility under this legislation and employers must ensure policies to manage this are in place which can be an administrative burden.

  1. GPs may refer your employee to the Fit for Work service.

GPs now are advised to refer all long term sickness cases over 28 days to the national occupational health service called Fitness for Work. The Government has undertaken pilot schemes with GPs to try and improve their knowledge of occupational health, but these have been unsuccessful and so the new Fit for Work service has been introduced to provide all of the working population with occupational health advice.

Therefore, if you write to the GP regarding employees who have been absent for more than 28 days, you may find that no information is available as a referral to the Fit for Work service has been made. It’s therefore worth considering how this change will affect your organisation’s policies and procedures before your employee turns up with recommendations from the Fit for Work service which you maybe will find difficult to implement.

  1. Writing to GPs is expensive and causes delays.

Writing for GP reports is often expensive because you can be charged any amount of money. Often payment is requested up front and you are therefore paying for a report you haven’t even seen. GPs are very busy and providing you with a report is not likely to be a top priority for them. You could therefore be waiting for a couple of months. Meanwhile it’s difficult to manage your employee’s absence. All you can do is wait for the report and hope that it gives you some useful information.

So, what is the alternative?

Work with Occupational Health Instead.

Occupational health is the branch of medicine which has expertise in the diseases of occupations and fitness for work. An OH nurse or doctor is a fully qualified clinician who has an additional qualification in occupational health. There are a range of OH services you can tap into either on an ongoing or an ad hoc basis. Look locally to find an independent OH Adviser or the Commercial Occupational Health Providers Association website has regional lists of OH services.

Seeking an ad hoc occupational health opinion on employee absence will ensure that you receive evidence based robust advice on managing all your cases of absence. You can be confident that you are receiving an opinion from a clinician who is deemed competent and qualified to give you occupational health advice. This then means that you can act on this advice without the risk of falling foul of disability legislation.

An OH report will provide you with the following information:-

  • Fitness and capability for specific job role.
  • Expected return to work date.
  • Proactive rehabilitation/return to work advice.
  • Implications of the Equality Act.
  • Recommended attendance or capability targets.
  • Likelihood of future absences.
  • Prognosis of condition.
  • Assessment of fitness to attend a disciplinary hearing.
  • If the condition is work related.
  • What reasonable adjustments are indicated.
  • Advice to Managers regarding impact of medical condition.
  • Timescales for recovery.
  • Contact details, to encourage clarification with OH where required.

Engaging an occupational health service on a regular basis will give you the opportunity to look at the causes of absence in your organisation so that future absences will be reduced. Management training can take place which alerts managers to the early signs of impending absence so that absences can be avoided or reduced as far as possible.

Yes, the GP report may advise you of an employee’s diagnosis and maybe what medication they have been prescribed. It will not however give you an occupational health opinion on fitness for work because GPs are not trained or competent in the majority of cases, to give you the opinion you need. So, how can you make an assessment of capability and fitness for work armed only with the medical information you receive from the GP. Can you really make a robust evidence based judgement on what work capability an employee has from a medical diagnosis? Would this satisfy a tribunal? Would you ask an electrician to advice on a plumbing problem? Would you try and sort out the problem yourself? No, you would use the appropriate professional to give you advice, in this case it would be an OH clinician.

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