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Guest blog: Dr Peter Bailey urges a rethink on ‘wrong and irrational’ stop to funding for NHS Practitioner Health

The new commissioners for NHS Practitioner Health have decided to ‘pause’ funding for hospital doctors with mental health problems including addiction from Monday (15 April) – at short notice.

NHS Practitioner health is a free, confidential primary care mental health and addiction service with expertise in treating health and care professionals in England and Scotland. It is a self-referral service to which doctors and senior health service staff can turn in times of distress, depression, anxiety, suicidal impulse and addiction. The service is currently treating more than 6,000 doctors and other health professionals. 60 per cent of these are hospital staff. No new referrals can be accepted by the service for hospital (secondary care) staff from Monday – because there will be no funding to treat them.

Without warning, this bombshell has been dropped on the service which must close its doors immediately to staff in distress and difficulty. No other service exists which can offer safe, effective, confidential and compassionate care for those who have dedicated their lives to caring for others.

More than 32,000 doctors and others have been treated by the service since it was founded by Dr Clare Gerada in 2008. Ironically, the decision to cease funding care for hospital staff flies in the face of Dr Gerada’s founding instinct – which was a response to the tragic death of a mother and baby. The mother was a junior hospital doctor who was so scared of the stigma of mental health that she could not seek help from the very profession she was seeking to join – psychiatry. If another doctor like her were to seek help on Monday, she would find the gates of NHS Practitioner Health closed to her.

I have worked for NHS Practitioner Health for five years. I qualified as a GP in 1984. I have first-hand experience of involvement in the compassionate care that doctors and other health service staff have come to trust. I know that it is a safe, effective, reliable service that provides a unique lifeline to doctors on the edge. We keep doctors in work, helping them through their troubles, discharging them only when they have recovered. Our service serves all the patients that our own patients treat. The benefits of Practitioner Health spread out from the doctors we treat, across the whole of the NHS.

Our service is the first port of call now for those concerned about the wellbeing of doctors. The GMC and the other professional regulatory bodies routinely recommend that their members turn to us for help. Responsible officers and occupational health practitioners, training programme directors and educational supervisors, general practitioners and psychiatrists, coaches and counsellors all signpost troubled NHS staff, knowing that self-referral to NHS Practitioner Health will help.

The new commissioners should think again, urgently, today – and reverse their decision. By all means, have a review, a cost-effectiveness analysis, test the market to see if a cheaper, more effective service could be commissioned. But to cease funding without evidence and in the face of the mounting pressures in the health service, burnout, issues with retention, understaffing and underfunding is perverse, wrong and irrational.

It is also profoundly disrespectful to the practitioners working for NHS Practitioner Health who strive to support their colleagues when they are at their lowest point.
Think again!

Dr Peter Bailey