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Friday, 14 July, 2000, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
The ill effects of retirement
BBC Doctor Colin Thomas
By BBC Doctor Colin Thomas

Much has been said this week about the number of public servant leaving their work due to ill health.

I would have to agree that it did always seem a little strange to me why some members of the public services seemed to develop 'job stopping' illnesses at 26 years of service, which coincidentally corresponds with the length of service required to secure a full ill health pension!

In fact one policeman confided in me "Everyone else is trying it on doc - you'd have to be a mug to work until normal retirement age when you could go early with the same pension."

In many respects I have sympathy with those who have given loyal public service, when the only way they are able to leave jobs that have become stressful and unsatisfying is to take (as one of my personnel colleagues used to put it) 'the early bath'.

However because ill health pensions are enhanced they cost money, and in the public services this means that ultimately taxpayers foot the bill.

It is easy to blame doctors for letting people through the net, but in honesty I don't think the whole answer lies in the medical tests however stringent you might make them.

One incident early on in my occupational health career taught me a big lesson about ill health retirement.

I was seeing a fireman who had injured himself at work. He was experiencing, he said, severe pain in his lower spine and this was affecting his ability to walk.

Surgical corset

Whenever I saw him in clinic he had quite severe clinical signs, walked with the aid of a stick and always wore a surgical corset.

One day I was due to see him in clinic, but there had been a hold-up on the motorway and I arrived 15 minutes late for the start of the clinic.

Blow me if I didn't see Mr X driving in to the car park and jump out of the drivers door with an agility that would put a young gymnast to shame.

I then watched him run from his car (for he was late for his appointment as well) vault a small wall and disappear into the clinic.

I followed sedately, and when I caught sight of him waiting his usual pained expression greeted me.

I realised that there hadn't been a miraculous improvement in his condition, but rather that his symptoms were displayed for the doctors benefit only.

I asked him again what his symptoms were, documented them, and then politely informed him that I had seen him 20 minutes before running from his car and hurdling the wall.

He denied it of course, but I never saw him again.

So a word of advice for government, insurance, and pension funds alike.

Make ill health retirements less financially attractive and I'll bet you 20 the number of applications will fall significantly.

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