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Dr Richard Heron
President, Faculty of Occupational Medicine and Vice-president health and chief medical officer, BP
Dr Richard Heron

Responding to the diagnosis of a long-term health condition - a view from an occupational physician

Authors: Dr Richard Heron President, Faculty of Occupational Medicine; Vice-president of Health and Chief Medical Officer, BP

08 March 2016

One of the great achievements of modern medicine has been the incredible increases in life expectancy which citizens in most countries now enjoy. Yet, as we know, one of the consequences of living longer is an increased susceptibility to a number chronic illnesses which can erode our quality of life and compromise our ability to live independently or continue to have full and fulfilling working lives. As an occupational physician, I have noticed that the number of questions that I and others in my profession receive from employees with chronic health problems and their employers is on the increase.

The recent report by The Work Foundation – The Impact of Long-term Conditions on Employment and the Wider Economy – has given us another reminder that there are a number of serious long-term health conditions which can have a serious impact on both the lives of working age people in the UK and on the wider economy. The truth is that, in many cases, our ability to diagnose, treat and manage these conditions clinically has improved significantly in recent years. However, our understanding of their impact on people’s ability to stay in work or on their functional capacity while in work has lagged behind in some respects. All too often the impact of a diagnosis of a long-term health condition, such as multiple sclerosis, together with stigma and fear of disclosure, have seriously hindered efforts to support either job retention or return to work. Yet I believe this need not be the case for most people and their diagnoses.

Part of the answer lies in focusing, where possible, on the ‘capacity’ rather than the ‘incapacity’ of individuals living with even the most serious chronic conditions. This means more GPs regarding return to work as a positive clinical outcome from their treatment. It also means that more employers need to think constructively about workplace interventions and adaptations which can help people remain active and productive at work while managing their condition. My experience is that there are very few people who cannot be helped significantly – especially if they get access to specialist, multidisciplinary support from occupational physicians, occupational therapists and physiotherapists, as and when they need them.

The Work Foundation are right to point out that the proportion of the working age population in the UK living with a long-term condition is set to grow over the next few years as the workforce ages and we all have to retire later. However, with earlier interventions, more active management of job retention and vocational rehabilitation and with better dialogue between clinicians, employers and individuals, it should be possible for many more people which chronic conditions to receive the support they need to stay active in the labour market, and continue to have productive and fulfilling working lives.