Government fitness for work test is making disabled people sicker, report claims

65% of those who had gone through the process said they had ended up with more pain afterwards

The government test to prove that disabled and sick people are unable to work is causing an increase in physical pain, worsening their condition or delaying their recovery, according to a new survey.

Leonard Cheshire, a charity that works with disabled people, surveyed 350 individuals who had been through the workplace capability assessment, which is used to establish whether benefit claimants are well enough to return to work.

More than six in 10 (65 per cent) of those who had gone through the process said they had ended up with more pain afterwards. Almost three quarters (72 per cent) said they found the assessment had a negative impact on their mental or physical health, or both. The same number described the face to face appointment as stressful.

One claimant, a teacher who was medically retired in 2011 due to progressive rheumatoid arthritis, said she left her appointment “feeling absolutely awful and suffered a lot of pain in the following days”. She went on to suffer a stroke a few weeks later, and believes the experience of undertaking a work fitness assessment was a contributing factor.

Andy Cole, campaigns director for Leonard Cheshire, said: “This isn’t acceptable and no test should put someone through something that makes their condition worse.

“We have known for a long time that this is an important issue. We had anecdotally hear this information but, [getting] it quantified in this way in quite such significant numbers, we were really surprised to see that it was this sort of figures.”

Unintended harm may be caused by assessors because they did not have sufficient information about patients’ conditions. Less than half (42 per cent) said their assessor had evidence of their condition prior to the meeting. Only 21 per cent agreed with the statement: “The assessor let me explain how my condition [or] disability affects me differently on different days or at different points during the day”. Two thirds disagreed with the outcome of their assessment.

Mr Cole added: “Some of the conditions are well documented through medical data going back decades. If that was used better there wouldn’t be a need for a test in the first place.”

“It’s worth remembering that the test was fundamentally supposed to be about a benefit that helped people back into work. There are lots of issues around the test about whether it’s been able to achieve that.”

The results relate to the period during which the private company Atos was responsible for carrying out the tests. Its work ends this weekend, after it pulled out of a government contract to manage disability claims early, and the American organisation Maximus will take over on 1 March 2015.

The charity is calling on Maximus to take the findings of its survey into account when redesigning the fitness for work testing process. It wants to see staff trained in specific medical conditions, physical examinations restricted to cases of absolute necessity and for claimants to be aware they can say no to an examination if it will cause them pain.

A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions said: “Healthcare professionals always take consent for any physical examination and ask claimants to tell them if any movement is uncomfortable. Examinations are not completed if they cause pain. Sufficient information is usually obtained through discussion, observation and a limited physical examination to assess the effects of disability.”

Case study: The former nurse

Sharon Majek, 57, from Rugby, has been unable to work since her mid-thirties after suffering a serious injury at work. She stopped an elderly patient from falling out of bed badly hurting her back. She was diagnosed with osteoarthritis, degenerative disk disease and fibromyalgia, leaving her in constant joint pain and with limited sensation in her hands.

She described her assessment as “traumatic”. “The doctor never made eye contact with me once, and that made me feel very uncomfortable. I was awaiting a knee replacement. He asked me to bend my knees. When I said I couldn’t he pushed it back. I was sweating with the pain. It swelled up later that day,” she said.

Ms Majek was found fit for work so she asked to see a copy of her report, which she and her husband described as unrecognisable from the meeting they had attended. The result was overturned at appeal.

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