Mental health at work: Improving access to primary healthcare

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Before adopting new mental health policies HR must look at improving employees' access to GPs

Theresa May's pledge to focus on improving mental health in the workplace is to be welcomed, and rightly she has called on employers to do more. The prime minister envisions a ‘new partnership with industry’ created by employer and mental health groups.

However, before rushing to adopt new mental health policies, HR professionals must first ask themselves whether they are getting the basics right. They must ensure they are facilitating, rather than hindering, their employees’ access to primary healthcare.

Primary healthcare plays a vital role in preventing, diagnosing and treating mental ill-health. GP involvement is a crucial step ahead of psychological support and specialist interventions, so improving access to primary healthcare is part of the solution.

In an 'on-demand', 24/7 world, healthcare is sometimes seen as synonymous with delayed and inconvenient appointment times, time off work and long waits in cramped waiting rooms. The average waiting time for a GP appointment is now just under two weeks, and is predicted to rise to 17 days in 2017.

Unsurprisingly, new research of over 1,000 employees for Doctor Care Anywhere by YouGov has shown that employees are risking their health by delaying or missing GP appointments. A third (33%) of employees have not attended a GP appointment for a year and similar numbers (37%) say they have continued to work despite being unwell enough for it to affect the quality of their work.

While appointment times and access to GPs emerge as the biggest barriers to primary healthcare, the research also reveals that corporate culture is contributing. Nearly a fifth, some 3.3 million, say they've failed to see a GP due to demands at work. A third (33%) of employees who missed appointments said that they felt pressure at work not to take time off, and nearly one in five (18%) claim that taking time off for GP appointments is frowned upon by their employers.

So, what can be done? Employer engagement really matters. Workers with unsupportive employers are twice as likely to have cancelled or missed GP appointments (23%) as those with very supportive employers (11%). Employers must create a work culture where GP appointments are prioritised and access to primary care facilitated.

Larger corporates might consider providing virtual GP access to help their workers to avoid spending time travelling to and from appointments. In the UK, an estimated 10 million patients will have had a video consultation with a GP last year and, as about 70% of appointments could be conducted over video, the popularity of virtual GPs looks set to grow.

Farzad Entikabi is an NHS GP partner in London and founder and medical director of Doctor Care Anywhere

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