General practitioner

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Ombudsman receives counselling privatisation complaint

A group of GPs and counsellors have submitted a complaint to the ombudsman about plans to use a private company to provide counselling in London.

The counselling service will be provided through private health clinic the Awareness Centre from November, when SLaM (South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust) takes over a contract.

Forty-two self-employed counsellors currently working for GP surgeries on either a part-time or full-time basis will not have their contracts renewed. Five NHS counsellors will be moved to the Awareness Centre under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, and will work alongside 70 unpaid trainees.

Six complaints about the plans were submitted to the parliamentary and health service ombudsman this month by a group of healthcare workers, including four GPs from different practices in the borough.

Concerns about consultation process

Complainants claim that patients and the public were not adequately consulted during the commissioning process for the Talking Therapies service, an umbrella term that relates to counselling and psychological services.

An NHS London spokesperson said the strategic health authority’s legal team had advised it that the consultation process was ‘robust’.

The spokesperson said: ‘Through a specific outcome-based consultation which was carried out between October 11 and November 11, 2011, we received over 130 responses (individual and from organisations). The document was made readily available, and there was also an opportunity to attend an open-space event.’

GPs and counsellors are also concerned about the loss of experienced counsellors.

‘Excellent counsellors’ lost

Brockwell Park Surgery GP Sarah Bruml, who put her name to the complaint, said: ‘We are losing a lot of excellent counsellors with a lot of experience. The Awareness Centre has a very private face. There’s no clear line where NHS care will finish and the option to refer on privately starts.’

Lambeth IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) clinical director John Manley said the changes reflected National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines, which state counselling is no longer the first-line treatment for the majority of patients.

He said all patients would be given risk assessments before being referred, and those patients deemed high risk would be referred to IAPT psychological services.

The Awareness Centre has previously been subcontracted to provide counselling to some GP surgeries in Clapham.

The BMA opposes the increased use of the private sector in the NHS.