Collaboration is key

Dr Justin Varney, MBBS MSc FFPH HonFOM

Collaboration not competition is fundamental for the future and this is absolutely the case in the sphere of occupational health.

The occupational health profession is diverse and varied with professionals coming from many different parts of medicine, nursing, the allied health professions, psychology, occupational hygiene, health and safety and ergonomics.

Each of the professional groups however is small and, perhaps with the exception of health and safety professionals, have limited visibility and voice within their ‘parent specialism’.  As professionals they work in, and across, the public, private and voluntary sector. They often have portfolio careers that patchwork together clinical practice in different settings, industries and sectors, all working to enable individuals to remain in, or return to work in ways that work for them and their health conditions.

As the public sector faces an ageing population who are living longer with increasingly complex needs there is an understandable focus on shifting training resource into areas of acute pressure like general practice and geriatrics rather than into occupational health training. Although there is a strong case that reducing training capacity in the professionals will ultimately be a false economy, something to discuss in another blog!

Over the last fifty years there has been a fundamental shift in the nature of work and the change continues to accelerate and deepen in its implications for individuals and for occupational health.

Digital and technological breakthrough has seen many employees moved away from the high occupational risk exposures of front line heavy manufacturing processes to technical, hospitality or administrative roles. Patterns of musculoskeletal disease may well shift from lower limb and lower spinal issues to upper limb and upper spine issues linked to the way we use our computers and phones rather than the way we lift and twist.

This sits alongside the shift to mandatory manual handling training and office health and safety instruction which has increased both employer and employee understanding of health and safety as well as the strengthening through case law and legislative reform of the punative risks associated with organisational negligence and accountability.

Finally the global nature of business also provides a new dimension of occupational health with 4 out of 5 jobs in the top 40 economies linked to directly to global supply chains and business networks. Both recreational and occupational travel creates new vectors for disease communication as well as new dimensions of cross-cultural occupational health practice.

The landscape of occupational health has never been more complex and that is why collaboration is key to the future of occupational health practice. It is only by working together across professional and sectoral boundaries that as partners in the Council of Health and Work that we can make the leaps and bounds that are needed to respond to, and position for, the changing and evolving future of work and health.