Concerns have been raised that nurses could become involved in the coercive treatment of patients with mental health problems who may in the future be denied welfare benefits if they refuse therapy.
Healthcare workers said the proposed government policy could leave nurses in breach of their professional code of conduct.
“Every person has a right to make an informed decision on their treatment. Some can have significant side effects”
Unison healthcare worker
The government is currently undertaking a review of how to bring more people who have “long-term, yet treatable” conditions back into work. It is looking primarily at people with obesity, alcohol, and drug addiction.
Led by health policy advisor Dame Carol Black, the consultation paper launched last summer said the review would consider linking people’s benefit entitlements to their take-up of treatment or support.
But at Unison’s health conference in Brighton this week, healthcare professionals argued they should not be complicit in providing coerced treatment.
They called for the union to produce guidance on how to object to coerced treatment of patients on professional grounds, and to hold an “urgent” meeting with the Nursing and Midwifery Council over potential breaches of the code.
“If the government was genuinely serious about getting those with mental health problems into work… they would challenge barriers and stigma in the workplace”
Unison healthcare worker
“Every person has a right to make an informed decision on their treatment. Some treatments can have significant side effects which can occasionally be worse than the condition itself,” said one healthcare worker.
“While on the face of it we need more patients to undergo treatment, our professional role is always to ensure they make an informed decision, taking into account all of the material risks,” he added.
One member from Unison’s nursing and midwifery occupational group noted that returning people to work could worsen their mental health.
“It’s absurd the government has an idea we can ferret these people into work when it may be the work – or the absence of it – that caused the upset and mental distress in the first place,” he said.
Another said care professionals were the “last line of defence” for people relying on health services.
mental health depressed middle-age woman looking out of window
She suggested that the policy could result in numerous breaches of the NMC‘s code, including the duty to ensure consent to treatment is voluntary and properly informed.
“If the government was genuinely serious about getting those with mental health problems into work then they would invest in our services rather than savagely cut them like they have over the past six years,” she said.
“They would challenge barriers and stigma in the workplace and educate employers, and ditch their austerity policies that are causing a worsening mental ill health in the first place,” she added.
A motion to identify NMC code breaches as a result of the proposed policy, and to produce guidance on objecting to coerced treatment was passed by delegates.