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Doctors are urging employers to plan for the effects of long COVID now as cases continue to grow, according to Occupational Health Assessment.

Without planning how to manage the condition in advance, employers risk being left with big staffing problems. The medical provider says that employers, including those in the mobility sector, should take a multi-disciplinary approach to rehabilitation to aid employees in their recovery from long COVID.

“The Medical profession knows about post viral syndromes, but the potential scale and complexity of Long COVID is presenting new challenges,” said Dr. Greg Irons MBChB MFOM, an occupational health specialist practising in London.

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“The UK Government’s Office for National Statistics published data last November showing that around one in five people who tested positive for COVID-19 had symptoms that lasted for 5 weeks or longer – and one in ten people had symptoms that lasted for 12 weeks or longer.”

Occupational Health Assessment says that considering that approaching four million people in the UK have tested positive so far (and the true number of infections is likely to be higher), employers are potentially looking at a significant number of long COVID cases within the UK workforce.

Difficult to prove

The specialist medical provider notes that employers might find it difficult to navigate the complexities of long COVID. Unless a PCR swab test was taken (and gave a positive result) at the time of infection, or specific (highly accurate) antibody testing was done in the weeks soon after, it is difficult to prove if an employee has had COVID-19 or not.

Importantly, a negative result from an antibody test does not mean an employee has not had COVID-19, Occupational Health Assessment adds. Over time, antibody levels may have depleted and become undetectable. Consequently, it can be impossible to definitively confirm if an employee has had COVID-19 in the past.

Because the diagnosis is subjective and the symptoms are varied, long COVID is reminiscent of other chronic conditions, such as chronic back pain and fibromyalgia, which can also be challenging for employers to manage. The provider adds that recovery times can vary too, which could present difficulties for employers.

Psychological and physical repercussions

Many patients are reporting psychological or cognitive concerns following infection, sometimes long after they have recovered, Occupational Health Assessment says.

Mike Battista, Staff Scientist at Cambridge Brain Sciences, an online platform for assessing cognitive function, commented: “With COVID-19, the severity of cognitive impairments can vary widely from person to person. Traditional methods of measuring those problems are usually a one-off binary decision: is someone severely impaired or not? Clinicians are much better served by a continuous measure of cognitive capacity to track subtle changes over time.”

However, assessing the physical elements of long COVID can also be very difficult.

Occupational Health Assessment adds: “Physiotherapy can certainly help, although rehabilitation is likely to require care and support from many different medical disciplines. That is not always a straightforward process.”

Consequently, rehabilitation from long COVID may involve a multi-disciplinary approach that can take time and requires employee consent. The medical provider says that primary care, occupational health, respiratory physiotherapy and other services are likely be involved. This may require significant patience and co-ordination, especially if it is led by an employer.

“Just because an employee has a long-term medical condition, it does not mean an employer has no options,” said Magnus Kauders, Managing Director of Occupational Health Assessment. “Rehabilitation can be time consuming and tricky, but it can be done.

“As a last recourse, the capability channel will remain available for employers. However, that will usually require professional insight, at the very least support from occupational health and probably specialist legal support.”

Clinicians are already suggesting that the future support for long COVID recovery will involve a much more nuanced approached than historical approaches to rehabilitation. It will also involve cutting-edge tools providing doctors and employers with an objective evaluation of each patient’s progress at every stage of their rehabilitation, the provider observes.

Although these tools to support rehabilitation are there, it still may not be an easy path for employers.

“It is likely to require physical, psychological, biological and social support, possibly for many years to come,” added Dr. Irons.

Occupational Health Assessment is a specialist medical provider that supports businesses across the UK. With access to a nationwide team of expert doctors and a unique occupational health assessment service, the business helps employers manage and reduce health risks.

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