With more than 35 million work days lost each year in the UK to occupational ill health and injury, it has been widely acknowledged that physiotherapists should play a key role in delivering future occupational health strategies, which in turn must be brought into mainstream healthcare provision.

NHS Employers' recent summit, Matching Skills to Service Needs - the physiotherapy contribution, focused on how physiotherapists can also help deliver four of the national priority areas - health and well-being, occupational health, trauma and orthopaedics (linked to the 18-week target) and stroke.

The role physiotherapists play in assessing, diagnosing and treating patients throughout the care pathway, not only in traditional health settings but more broadly across social care and education, is central to the NHS today. And this role looks likely to increase with the ageing population and the well-documented problems associated with modern lifestyles.

Broader role

Managing diabetes, injection therapy, stroke services and sickness management in the workplace were just a few of the areas where physiotherapists attending the summit demonstrated they were making an invaluable contribution to the NHS.

The delegates heard how, given the time physiotherapists generally spend with their patients, they are not only able to carry out their treatments, but also play an expanded role in health promotion, raising the profile of health and lifestyle choices, educating patients and offering a more holistic model of care by signposting other services that may be of benefit to patients, such as smoking cessation.

One primary care trust has put in place a programme that aims to do all this and more, with physiotherapists developing links with other NHS professionals as well as the local leisure industry. The case study highlights how patients are now benefiting from a more joined-up model of care that addresses all their needs rather than solely the problem for which they have been referred.

The NHS Employers briefing Managing the Role of Physiotherapists in Delivering Occupational Health Services, developed with the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, discusses Dame Carol Black's report, including the "fit for work" service and how occupational health should be brought into mainstream healthcare provision.

In particular, it makes it clear that NHS staff should have swift access to physiotherapy services and puts forward a business case that demonstrates the savings that can be made through reducing sickness absence and encouraging a faster return to work.

On-site treatment

At the summit, delegates heard how another trust, which employs more than 9,000 people, has developed a musculoskeletal triage service for its staff, where physiotherapists work alongside colleagues in the occupational health team to provide rapid treatments and reduce sickness absence.

By providing specialist advice and treatment on-site, staff members can be treated at their place at work, which means an early intervention, reduced absence and also a reduction of injury risk, as physiotherapists are able to identify and target potential problems. 71 per cent of staff using the service said they had a quicker return to work thanks to the new facility.

With musculoskeletal problems and resulting sickness absence costing the UK an estimated£13.4bn, and research showing that investing in rehabilitation cuts costs and risks for employers, trusts will want to consider how they can develop a holistic occupational health service that will meet the future needs of staff and patients.

NHS Employers will be publishing the case studies that were presented at the summit and is working on another briefing paper, which pulls together the key learning and discussion from the summit as well as setting out the national context.