Pharmacy leaders ‘disappointed’ at cuts to free NHS mental health service

NHS Practitioner Health, which provides support to NHS staff for mental health and addiction, will no longer offer services to secondary care staff.
women sat opposite each other in counselling sessions

Update: NHS England issued a statement on the future of the NHS Practitioner Health service on 15 April 2024, after this article was published.

Navina Evans, chief workforce officer at NHS England, said: “Following discussions with Practitioner Health on their current service for secondary care doctors, dentists and senior staff, we have jointly agreed to extend the service by 12 months, for both existing and new service users, while we carry out a wider review to ensure that all NHS staff groups have the mental health support they need.”

Pharmacy leaders have expressed disappointment that a mental health service for NHS staff is being withdrawn for secondary care professionals.

NHS Practitioner Health is a free, confidential service launched in 2008 to support healthcare professionals with mental illness and addiction.

An announcement posted by NHS Practitioner Health on X (formally Twitter) on 12 April 2024, said that the service had “agreed with NHS England to halt new registrations for secondary care staff from 15 April 2024 onwards”.

It said this was owing to NHS England “undertaking a review of the staff support offer for mental health across all staff groups to consider long-term sustainable options”.

The announcement added that the service would continue to support existing patients, and that arrangements for primary care staff have been extended for a further 12 months until 31 March 2025.

Commenting on the cuts to the service, Nathan Burley, president of the Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists, said he was “disappointed” at the withdrawal of services for secondary care professionals.

“Not only will this exert greater pressure on already stretched mental health services, but it will also impact third sector organisations, such as Pharmacist Support,” he said.

“An outpouring of testimonies from staff right across the multidisciplinary teams that make up the NHS on platforms like X/Twitter show that this quiet and rapid decision to close the service will undoubtedly have a personal and emotional impact.”

James Davies, director for England at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), said that the cuts to NHS Practitioner Health followed “an unacceptable trend of cuts to wellbeing support, despite the need to boost workforce retention”.

“Funding for national wellbeing hubs came to an end last year, and with significant pressures on integrated care board budgets, a potential postcode lottery of support for staff wellbeing would be a disaster,” he said.

Paul Day, director of membership and communities at the Pharmacists’ Defence Association, said: “It is disappointing to see what appears to be a retrospective announcement mid-April, saying that the NHS had withdrawn this support at the start of the month.”

The RPS wrote to the Department of Health and Social Care in November 2019, calling for pharmacists to have equal access to services to support their mental health, including the Practitioner Health service.

Despite the government saying that it had no plans to open the Practitioner Health service to pharmacists, NHS England announced in November 2022 that all primary care staff, including community pharmacists, could self-refer to the service, after previously having to be referred through health and wellbeing hubs.

Commenting on the withdrawal of the service for secondary care staff, a spokesperson for NHS England said: “Staff wellbeing is a really important part of the ‘NHS long-term workforce plan’ and we know we need to do more to support our workforce.

“Practitioner Health will remain available for all primary care staff, and it will continue to support all existing patients — discussions are ongoing with the provider about future contracts.

“Any other NHS staff will be signposted to alternative sources of support, including their GP, occupational health departments, which are available in all trusts, as well as employee assistance programmes.”

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, April 2024, Vol 312, No 7984;312(7984)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2024.1.308835

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