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'Fit note' scheme provokes data fears



DWP plan to examine GP statistics leads doctors' group to warn over state snooping

Flagship Government plans to get sick people back to work are at the centre of a “state snooping” row.

The Family Doctor Association has attacked the revelation that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will be able to examine data from individual GP practices.

From next month, officials will be authorised to take sick note statistics from each surgery to see how many patients are recorded as “unfit” or “maybe fit” for work.

The data – which can be shared with other organisations – will include the number of fit notes issued, the length of time to which it applies and a record of the person's health condition.

The move goes much further than the DWP’s original statement that the statistics would be published anonymously, at clinical commissioning group (CCG) level only.

Now doctors have told Pulse magazine, which uncovered the scheme, that they fear a looming crackdown on GPs who issue a large number of sick notes.

Bureaucrats looking

Peter Swinyard, chairman of the Family Doctor Association, said: “I think that is state snooping. Although I am sure some civil servant thought it was a terrific idea somewhere, I am not entirely sure I agree. I don’t know if patients understand that when I write a fit note, some bureaucrat is going to be able to have a look at it.”

Neil Bhatia, a GP who has campaigned for stricter use of medical data, said he believed practice-level data was only being sought to “compare practices, create league tables, name and shame”.

GPs will need to inform patients that their data is being taken, but will be unable to withhold that information unless their patient explicitly objects.

The DWP told Pulse that no practice-level information would be shared outside the department and that it merely wished to understand why sickness rates vary, so occupational health services can be improved.


A spokesperson said: “We want to ensure that people get the best possible support to return to work – or to avoid falling out of work in the first place. All fit note statistics are anonymous and they will help provide a better understanding of why people take sickness absence in different areas across the country, so we can make the service as effective as possible for businesses and employees.”

Under the fit note scheme, GPs are encouraged to assess what kind of work a patient might be able to do – rather than simply sign them off as sick.

Patients off sick for more than a week will then be referred to advisers who offer counselling, physiotherapy or other help such as debt management to allow them to return to work.

Image by Daniel Sone (photographer), public domain via Wikimedia Commons


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