This site is intended for health professionals only

NHS England reviewing future of practitioner mental health service

by Eliza Parr
15 April 2024

Share this article

NHS England’s mental health and addiction support service for health professionals will no longer take on new secondary care doctors, and will review its offer to all staff groups in the long term.

The NHS Practitioner Health service will remain in place for GPs and primary care staff for now, with NHS England confirming an extension for a further 12 months until the end of March 2025.

However, it has cut funding for new registrations from secondary care staff from today, meaning any new patients will be ‘signposted’ to other services such as their GP. 

The service announced last Friday that NHS England is ‘undertaking a review’ for the support offer across all NHS staff groups, to consider ‘long term sustainable options’.

All doctors and dentists have been able to access Practitioner Health for free since 2019, with provision being extended to everyone working in primary care staff in 2022.

NHS England’s decision to withdraw funding for new patients working in hospitals has been roundly criticised, with the BMA saying it is ‘short-sighted’ and ‘deeply concerning’. 

NHS England chief strategy officer Chris Hopson said the ‘vast majority’ of mental health support for NHS staff ‘is, and always has been, via their employer’s health and wellbeing schemes’. 

Posting on X, he said: ‘There is no change to those services. Given the dispersed nature of Primary Care, the existing Practitioner Health service for doctors in Primary Care will continue as a single, NHS England commissioned, national service.

‘We are reviewing the current Practitioner Health service that is provided for doctors and senior managers in secondary care, as part of a wider review to ensure that all NHS staff groups have the support they need.’

The service provides treatment to healthcare professionals who are mentally unwell, supporting them to remain in or return safely to work. 

According to figures for 2022/23, 6,741 new patients registered with the service, with average registrations per month at 562, up from 225 before the pandemic. 

Professor Dame Clare Gerada, an ambassador for NHS Practitioner Health who is also a GP, said there is no ‘backstory’ to ending secondary care registrations other than NHS England saying there is ‘no budget’. 

In a post on X, she said: ‘To remind, it was established following suicide of a psychiatrist who also killed her baby and highlighted the barriers doctors have in accessing mental health care.’

‘I am so proud of the 32,000 doctors/dentists/nurses/paramedics/and others who have sought our help. Please support us now. But we will, and I promise, do everything we can to restore normal services,’ Professor Gerada added.

In a post on X, GP Dr Lucy Henshall described her own experience with mental health issues which forced her to pay ‘many thousands’ of pounds to see specialists, because there was ‘literally nothing’ available on the NHS at the time.

Dr Henshall later worked for NHS Practitioner Health as a clinical lead in advance of the national service being rolled out to GPs. 

She said she has ‘lost count of the suicidal doctors who are still alive thanks to NHS Practitioner Health’. 

‘If the humans in NHS England have even a shred of decency and humanity they will undo this heinous act tomorrow. The NHS as a whole, is entirely reliant on its people. Its workforce. Its clinicians. Anything other than a rapid u turn and full apology is unthinkable,’ she wrote. 

BMA workforce lead Dr Latifa Patel said doctors are ‘more burnt-out’ than ever, and NHS England’s withdrawal of funding is a ‘short-sighted financial decision with potentially harmful consequences for both doctors and patients’.

She added: ‘We need to have assurances that its review of services will lead to equal or better provision of mental health support in the future. 

‘More urgently we call for a pause in the decision to end funding so doctors are not left without support while the review is carried out.’

Co-chair of the Doctors’ Association UK Ms Helen Fernandes described the decision, which came without warning on Friday last week, as ‘cruel’ and ‘absolutely outrageous’.

She continued: ‘To pull out a major support service for hospital-based doctors seems rather cruel. We’re calling on the commissioners to reverse the decision.

‘The funding of this service will be tiny in comparison to the NHS budget but the work it does is huge.’

An NHS England spokesperson said they know they ‘need to do more’ to support the workforce and that ‘staff wellbeing is a really important part’ of the long-term workforce plan’. 

They said: ‘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 year, it was reported that around 5% of GPs in England were accessing mental health services via NHS Practitioner Health – despite the service only intending to reach between 0.5% and 1% of GPs when it began nationwide in 2016.

A version of this story was first published by our sister publication Pulse