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A team from Keele University’s Research Institute for Primary Care and Health Sciences has been awarded a major grant of £1.5 million from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to investigate if an occupational health advice service for patients consulting with their GP will reduce absence from work due to ill-health.

Approximately 137 million days were lost from work in the UK due to sickness in 2016 according to the Office for National Statistics, however few employees currently receive support to manage their health at work.

GPs currently offer fit notes, previously known as sick certificates, when they feel a patient needs time off work due to ill health. However, GPs report that they find it difficult to provide work-related health advice during consultations with patients.

Access to vocational advice remains difficult for the majority of employees. This study will make good quality advice and support for return to work available to patients before their work absence becomes long-term. We hope that it will help patients feel more confident to manage their health difficulties at work and lead to people having fewer days off work as a result.”
- NIHR Professor Nadine Foster

Previous research led by Keele University found that providing a brief occupational health advice service for patients with back and/or joint pain consulting with their GP reduced time off work and helped patients feel more confident about working with their pain problem. It is hoped that the new study will expand the work-related health advice service to other health problems.

This new study will take 4.5 years and is led by researchers at Keele University in collaboration with researchers at the Universities of Southampton, Birmingham, Aston and King’s College London. It will adapt the previously successful occupational health advice service so that it is suitable for many more patients consulting their GP with health conditions affecting their ability to work.

The study (called the WAVE study) is led by NIHR Professor of Musculoskeletal Health, Nadine Foster, and Senior Research Fellow, Dr Gwenllian Wynne-Jones, from the Primary Care Centre Versus Arthritis within the Research Institute for Primary Care and Health Sciences at Keele University. Read the full release.

In the earlier MRC funded PhysioDirect trial, a telephone assessment and treatment service was tested. A follow-on study, funded by the SPCR, conducted a secondary analysis of the PhysioDirect trial data, comparing a 'run-in' period of the new service with the 'main trial' service. It showed that when introducing a new telephone-based service in primary care it takes several weeks for key process measures (such as telephone call length) to stabilise whilst those delivering the new service get used to it.

"The new WAVE trial will test a stepped approach to vocational advice, the first of which comprises telephone-based assessment, advice and support. Given the previous SPCR study findings, the new WAVE trial is not designed with a separate 'run-in' period before measuring patient outcomes in the trial", said Chief Investigator, Nadine Foster.