Medical certificates may be more detailed

Southland Times Work To Rule columnist Mary-Jane Thomas is a partner at Preston Russell Law.
Southland Times Work To Rule columnist Mary-Jane Thomas is a partner at Preston Russell Law.

Many employers would have experienced the frustration of being provided with an inadequate medical certificate by an employee taking sick leave, writes Mary-Jane Thomas in Work to Rule.

For instance, the employer cannot gain any idea from the certificate when the employee can return to work, or what, if any, are the causes of the illness. Also the employer is without any ability to inquire further into the employee's illness because of patient privacy constraints.

A recent Employers and Manufacturers survey showed that 70 per cent of employers were unhappy with the medical certificates they received from their employees taking sick leave. Particular concerns were certificates being issued retrospectively, without the doctor having seen any real evidence of the employee's illness, and a shortage of specific information in relation to the causes of the illness - for example, if it was workplace related.

A review by the Medical Council of New Zealand of its statement on medical certification looks to help solve some of these issues. The report called Writing Medical Certificates: a review of the standards for doctors (May 2013), is an overview of the standards imposed on doctors when issuing medical certificates.

Medical Council of New Zealand statements outline the various professional standards expected for doctors to follow.

Don't be fooled by the "standard".

The Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003 gives the Medical Council the responsibility of setting these standards, and they may be used by the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal, the Medical Council and the Health and Disability Commissioner as a disciplinary standard by which doctors can be measured (similar to the Conduct and Client Care Rules for Lawyers).

The proposed changes are only at the review stage; the council sought public input until July 5. No date has been set for the release of the amended statement.

What could it mean for employers?

Certificates must provide all the necessary information:

The review proposes is a policy shift in the information requirements of medical certificates. Certificates must have particular information included, as opposed the current requirements that restrict what information can be included.

Further, where the employee's diagnosis relates to ill health that arose in the workplace, the doctor must include both the diagnosis and the factors relating to the workplace that the patient believes have contributed to this illness.

Certificates must refer to the employee's fitness to work:

The doctor must record in the certificate any duties that the patient is able to do, if they consider the patient fit to work.

This will be extremely useful to employers in enabling the employee to come back to work sooner than had that information not been readily available.

When the certificate is not enough:

The review proposes to allow employers the opportunity to seek further information from the doctor about the patient's health status.

This may be of little significance in practise, due to the doctor's duty to observe the patient's right of privacy, thus it is also recommended that appropriate questions are limited to the patient's capacity, for example "do you think the patient is capable of doing (activity X)."

The increased readability of the information in the certificates will enable better communication between the employer and their sick employees. An employer will have a better grasp on the employee's situation, therefore deal with the employee more effectively, and result in a better transition of the employee back into the workplace.

» Mary-Jane Thomas is a partner at Preston Russell Law. E-mail questions to

The Southland Times