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UK occupational medicine faces a “perfect storm”


All-Party Parliamentary Group points to occupational medical workforce crisis

The Faculty of Occupational Medicine and Society of Occupational Medicine welcome a new report focusing on the growing workforce crisis within UK occupational medicine. The report, published this week by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health, highlights the increasing gap between occupational health provision, particularly access to specialist occupational physicians, and demand for such services.

The country now faces a major demographic challenge in its labour force. There are currently 31.7 million people working in the UK – more than at any other time. This figure includes 1.2 million workers aged over 65, and 3.7 million more workers aged 50-74 than 20 years ago. As the report rightly states, urgent occupational health support is required to keep people, especially those aged 50-70, in work, and to assist those with health conditions and disabilities who are not employed into work. Without action the UK labour force will be hit with a significant reduction, and the taxpayer will incur much greater costs in terms of increased welfare payments.

Occupational health services are vital in safeguarding the future health and prosperity of the UK, yet the report highlights the pressing need to increase recruitment of specialist occupational physicians, an assertion FOM and SOM both strongly agree with. Working as part of a multidisciplinary team, specialist occupational physicians are a crucial part of any occupational health service, and possess unique skills neither other doctors nor other occupational health professionals possess.

However, training posts for specialist occupational physicians are at an all-time low, down from 216 in 2002 to just 74 in 2015. Occupational medicine is also an ageing specialty; 64% of all doctors working in occupational medicine are aged 50 or over, and half of all specialists could retire within a decade. FOM and SOM welcome the report’s emphasis on this looming workforce crisis in occupational medicine, and would urge all stakeholders addressed in the report to consider the All Party Parliamentary Group’s recommendations as a matter of urgency.

Dr Richard Heron, President of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine, responded to the report: “FOM and SOM welcome the focus on the crisis in occupational medicine highlighted in this report from the All-Party Parliamentary group. Over the next decade the number of specialist occupational physicians available to offer advice to workers and employers is set to half, with no increase in the funding to train the next generation of occupational physicians.

“With an ageing workforce, an increase in chronic conditions in people of working age, and over 23 million working days lost each year to work-related illness, urgent action is needed to protect worker health and improve productivity for the health of our economy.”