Doctors may be asked to disclose a sick employee's diagnosis to that person's employer, under tighter standards being considered for medical certificates.
They will also be asked to make a judgement on what duties a sick employee can still undertake for an employer if they're unable to carry out their usual workplace duties due to illness.
The changes being considered have been disclosed in a recent New Zealand Medical Council report called Writing Medical Certificates: a review of the standards for doctors (May 2013). It outlines a number of proposed changes to the Council's Statement on Medical Certification, which sets out a doctor's responsibilities when preparing a medical certificate.
- a doctor will be required to outline any duties an employee is fit for;
- employers and others will be advised on how to find out more information about an employee's illness to support their (employment-related) decision making;
- a doctor will be required to include particular information in a medical certificate (this is a shift in focus from the current standard, which restricts doctors in how much information they can provide to an employer);
- a new standard will be introduced that requires a doctor ensure that medical certificates meet the standards outlined in any relevant legislation; and
- where a diagnosis relates to ill health that arose in the workplace, a doctor will be required to set out in an employee's medical certificate both the diagnosis and the workplace factors that have contributed to the employee's illness (the employee's consent will be required).
The changes will please employers concerned that doctors may have inappropriately issued medical certificates to employees.
If implemented, they would not only ensure that an employer understands the nature of an employee's illness, but that an employee who is able to carry out some tasks must still attend work (even if that is on a part-time basis). Doctors will have to record in a medical certificate whether an employee is fit for some, if not all, duties. The report also proposes that an employer should be able to seek clarification of an employee's health status from the employee's doctor.
Taken together, the changes will minimise the need for employers to create their own policies in relation to proving an employee's illness.
Providing employers with necessary information
The Medical Council has identified a number of employers' concerns with the existing system in its report. Statistics compiled from the Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern) show that 70% of employers are not satisfied with the medical certificates they receive from employees taking sick leave. A number of employers are concerned that doctors are issuing medical certificates:
- without medical cause;
- retrospectively, without having seen any evidence of illness; and
- lacking in specific information (particularly where an employee alleges that their illness arose from work-related activity).
The Statement was first drafted in 2001. No amendments were made when it was last reviewed in 2007. The Medical Council has invited feedback on the report by Friday 5 July 2013.
Special thanks to Natalie Manning of Victoria University Wellington for her contribution to this publication.