ROS WYNNE JONES’ REAL BRITAIN
Whistleblower tells the inside story of Atos
The many disabled people who tell stories of heartbreaking WCA judgements will be both heartened and outraged by Dr Wood’s testimony
In February of this year, Dr Greg Wood received an email from his employer, Atos.
He had filed a Work Capacity Assessment report on a benefits claimant with chronic and serious mental health problems – including psychosis – saying she was unfit for work.
“I was told to amend the report,”
A former navy doctor who had served in Iraq, 48-year-old Dr Wood had been promoted by Atos as a Mental Health Champion – one of only a few assessors in the company who mentored others.
“The claimant was in and out of psychiatric hospital,”
“She was completely distracted in our interview. I could see she was not fit for work.”
WCA assessors work on a points system.
Claimants need to gather 15 or above points to be declared unfit for work and eligible for Employment Support Allowance.
Dr Wood claims he was told to amend the report to show fewer points.
“I thought, they haven’t even seen the patient, how can they know whether she is fit for work?”
It was not uncommon for reports to be reviewed and amendments asked for, but in this case Dr Wood felt so strongly about the claimant’s case that he resigned.
He is now critical of some of the Atos processes – which fulfil criteria set out by the Department for Work and Pensions.
An Atos spokesman said:
“We never ask doctors to make any changes to a report unless there are specific clinical quality issues identified within it.”
The many disabled people who write to this column every week telling stories of heartbreaking WCA judgements will be both heartened and outraged by Dr Wood’s testimony.
From the Manchester “oyster card” to the BBC website, Atos’s richly-rewarded tentacles are everywhere in public life.
On Monday, tickets for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow went on sale, sponsored by Atos.
When Dr Wood joined the firm in September 2010, he was a supporter of stringent medicals for people on benefits.
During his 16-year career as a naval medical officer, performing medicals had been the “bread and butter” of his job.
During his first months with Atos, he had no concerns about the assessments.
Earlier that year, in May 2010, the Coalition government had been elected.
The following spring, in 2011, the system was overhauled to make the tests more stringent.
“The computer templates changed and made the process unduly harsh,” he says.
“The language among assessors would be ‘I had to score him’ as if that was a bad thing, or they had done something wrong.
“No one ever said that you mustn’t award points, but I felt the training and the atmosphere led you that way.”
He also felt some assessors were just following computer programs.
“Some are sat on a computer filling in answers,”
“Instead, they should be looking at the patient and saying, ‘there’s a problem here, they haven’t got any hands’.”
Assessors were instructed to ask a list of questions designed to show the people they were interviewing could do things.
“Did you make yourself a cup of tea this morning?”
sounded friendly but was designed to see if a claimant could use his hands effectively.
Dr Wood wanted to conduct actual medicals:
“not ask people whether they owned a cat”.
Alarm bells first sounded at a WCA training session he attended in June 2011.
He says loose interpretations of official guidelines were being offered by trainers
“such as ‘if they can walk from room to room, they can walk 200 metres, which equals no points’.”
When Dr Wood pointed out that walking from room to room was not at all the same as walking 200 metres, he says his objection was dismissed.
He also began to notice that a lot of people were scoring zero points.
“That indicated a problem to me. Why not six points when they had obvious problems? Why zero?”
And there were other cruelties.
“There was a man with motor neurone disease they wanted me to bring in for a face-to-face assessment,”
Dr Wood says.
“It was just cruel. He should have just been declared terminally ill based on documents we had seen.
“All that extra stress and worry of an appeal, and who knows how long he has left?” he shrugs.
“By January 2013, I got the message I should shut up.”
But after 16 years in military medicine, including a stint at a remote desert fort at Amarah in south-eastern Iraq, Dr Wood decided he would rather speak out.
Since his resignation, the Department for Work and Pensions has said it is bringing in external auditors to Atos and will retrain assessors.
“That told me I was right,”
Dr Wood says.
“And what’s really interesting is that if they have got decisions wrong for two years there could be legal implications involving one to two million cases.”
Yesterday, an Atos Healthcare spokesman said:
“We completely refute allegations made by Dr Wood that Atos Healthcare acts inappropriately or unethically.”
He added the WCA process was developed with the Government and all practitioners were well trained and guided in their day-to-day work.
And a DWP spokesperson said: “Healthcare professionals are only requested to amend their reports if they fall below the high quality standards we expect.”
Throughout his time at Atos, the part Dr Wood says he found most distressing was that so many of the people being tested were extremely vulnerable.
“That’s what began to disgust me. Really, you just end up cracking down on people who can’t defend themselves. That’s not why I went into medicine.”
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