What is an Occupational Physician and Why do I need one?

It is not often when I see patients for the first time that when I ask them if they have heard of an Occupational Physician that they say ‘yes’. In fact, when they do say ‘yes’, it is usually an indicator that they have been involved in protracted Workers’ Compensation  processes. Or, alternatively, they have misunderstood what I’ve asked, and think that I am an Occupational Therapist.

So, having said that, what is an Occupational Physician? If you think of a cardiologist, they are a specialist doctor who advises people about the managment of conditions to do with their heart. An Occupational Physician is a consultant specialist doctor who advises people on how their work can affect their health, and how their health can affect their ability to work safely. This is the role in a nutshell, but it incorporates so many facets. They are experts on injury management. They are experts on safe levels of exposures to chemicals and hazardous substances, both at work and in the community. And that’s where the ‘Environmental’ component of the specialty comes into play. You see, the correct title for an Occupational Physician is actually an ‘Occupational and Environmental Physician’, though we often use the title ‘OP’ to keep it simple. We hold a Fellowship with the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine within the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

Unfortunately, there are some doctors who call themselves Occupational Physicians who are not qualified through the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Whilst this is not against the law, it is unfortunately misleading. It also places them and those who rely on their advice in a precarious position in that the advice provided and relied upon is not backed up by formal training, qualification, and continuing professional development that is required for Consultant Occupational and Environmental Physicians. It means that this advice would be difficult to defend if it was ever questioned. The message here is; check the the qualifications of any doctor that you rely upon for advice.

The upside is, when you do have a qualified OP, the advice that you receive is evidenced based risk management advice.

So what do we actually do? Take a look at the video below which I will use as an attempt at a metaphor…….

See how much easier it is to appreciate a situation more completely when you sit back and take in the entire picture? All of those things that we each missed when we were focussed on one particular aspect (the detective in the video and what he was saying) become apparent when you can see the situation in its entirety. 

That is what an Occupational Physician does. They take into consideration more than just what is directly in their focus, but stepping back and assessing the individual, their environment, the mechanism of an incident, and the evidence base to assess the likely causation of an individual’s injury or illness, and determine the best way to manage the situation to maintain the health and safety of the individual.

"But I’m a Heath and Safety representative or Return to Work Co-ordinator in an  Insurance / Mining / Aviation / Transport / Tourism / Recruiting / Government / mum and dad small business / health provision organisation? How do OPs help me and my organisation? 

Well, again, look back at the video and see how the external perspective allows for a better understanding on a situation. An OP can help you organisation to identify key areas of risk for the health and safety of your workers. This will reduce injuries and illness, leading to healthier and happier workers, as well as decreasing the costs of insurance premiums. And, if the unfortunate does occur and a worker is injured, then an OP can advise on the best treatment for the worker to return them to normal living as soon as safely possible, and assess them to determine any ongoing risks for their health in the workplace.