Government strikes sick note for GPs

Health secretary Alan Johnson will today prepare the ground for his controversial new 'well-note' culture.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The government’s recent moves have already alienated entrepreneurs and wealthy non-doms. Next up: doctors. Under the new measures sick notes will become more specific: GPs will be expected to advise employers on what tasks patients can still perform, rather than just saying they can’t do anything. The aim is to cut down on numbers claiming incapacity benefit.

It is of course a laudable aim. The CBI estimates that 175m working days are lost to ill health each year. The Health and Safety Executive says that 36m of these are because of occupational ill-health. Meanwhile there are 64m people on incapacity benefit in Britain. The Government is understandably keen to sort that out.

Still, one can’t help wondering if the Government hasn’t been suffering another dizzy spell itself. Adding a few extra boxes to the forms really won’t solve any problems. Doctors' advice won’t carry any legal weight – they can’t force people back to work, only advise them – and they are hardly the best people to judge accurately what a patient’s job involves.

Then of course there's the business perspective. Companies aren't necessarily equipped to rehabilitate employees who would otherwise have remained off work. The move may well open up serious questions of liability should litigation issues arise.

Meanwhile the Department of Work and Pensions is hardly top of GPs’ Easter card list. First they’re upset at being told, rather condescendingly, something they already know – that work is good for you, and that it’s better to advise adjustments to working habits than to sign people off.

Furthermore they’re arguing that their job is to diagnose problems and help people get better, rather than helping to police the Government’s ailing welfare system. Of course you could argue that doctors get paid such a tidy amount that the odd extra task won’t do them any harm. The only problem: if the changes lead to more doctors suffering from stress, who’s going to sign their well note?

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