Ioana Piscociu: Can PMI cope with chronic health conditions?

As austerity measures hit the National Health Service (NHS) budget, employers are being forced to consider whether to turn to private medical insurance (PMI). But are private health services ready to tackle the growing burden of chronic conditions?

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • 31 million working days were lost to musculoskeletal conditions in the UK in 2013.
  • The most common musculoskeletal disorder is back pain.
  • Inclusive PMI schemes can give staff access to physiotherapy or specialist care.

Absence levels in the UK are higher than ever, with employers losing millions of working days each year to such chronic conditions. Chief among these are musculoskeletal conditions, which are reducing employee productivity rates.

In its Sickness Absence in the Labour Market report, published in February 2014, the Office for National Statistics said that, of the 131 million working days lost to sickness absence in 2013, 31 million resulted from musculoskeletal conditions.

The most common musculoskeletal disorder is back pain, but there are more than 200 conditions, including more serious forms such as arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, or injures caused by trauma.

Research by Fit for Work Europe, an initiative driving policy and practice change across Europe’s work and health agendas, shows that musculoskeletal disorders are actually manageable, and that productivity loss can be minimised if affected staff receive the right diagnosis and proper care early enough, as well as a plan for remaining in work.

Employers not prepared

But many employers are not prepared to manage sickness absence.

For example, line managers can play an important role in identifying the cause of staff absenteeism and facilitate early referral to physiotherapy or specialist care, but they are rarely trained or supported by their employers.

Another issue is the waiting time to see a specialist after a doctor’s referral and start a course of treatment, which currently takes between 16 and 22 weeks in the NHS.

However, a care programme called Early Intervention that ran for two years in Spain and led to the treatment of more than 3,300 employees with musculoskeletal disorders, showed some promising results.

Sickness absence was reduced by 39% and job losses by 50%, recouping almost £10 for every £1 invested in the programme.

Diagnosing staff

Key to the success of the Spanish programme was diagnosing staff within the first five days of them going off sick and offering them a tailored plan for treatment and return to work. This is where PMI could help plug the gap.

However, care is needed when opting for such services. Employers must ensure the chosen schemes cover the treatment of chronic conditions such as musculoskeletal disorders, because not many of them currently do.

Inclusive PMI schemes can give staff access to physiotherapy or specialist care. If this is done in conjunction with a return-to-work plan or a vocational rehabilitation scheme, absenteeism resulting from musculoskeletal disorders could be reduced significantly.

However, rehabilitation plans may have a separate cost, which is why employers might be tempted to disregard them.

After six weeks of sickness absence without support to remain in work, staff are more likely to switch to benefits, which is why employers need to tackle the burden of absenteeism related to musculoskeletal disorders efficiently

They can start by looking at employee healthcare programmes as an investment rather than a cost, as well as ensuring they can track the cause of sickness absence before it becomes too serious an issue to deal with. 

Ioana Piscociu is project manager of Fit for Work Europe, within The Work Foundation