Doctor’s certificates could be a thing of the past with new “fit notes”

Employees who need to take substantial time off work could soon be required to produce a “fit certificate” from their GP which outlines the duties they can perform, instead of those they can’t.

The “fit note” is part of the Health Benefits of Work program being established by federal government workplace insurer Comcare, which aims to minimise the harm of sending sick or injured workers home and simply waiting for them to get better.

The local version would replace the traditional doctor’s certificate required by most employers to take sick leave, and would be modelled on certificates used by GPs in the UK that allow doctors to specify if a worker should return to work in stages, work different hours or participate in a get-well program.

GPs in the UK can also specify if an employee should modify the patient’s workplace to help them return to work quicker.

A spokesperson for Comcare told SmartCompany the organisation has been working closely with UK doctor and health expert Carol Black, who led the introduction of “fit notes” in the UK, for the past few years with the aim of adopting the program across Australia.

“The long-term goal is to introduce the fit note in Australia,” said the spokesperson.

The program will be initially trialled by hundreds of GPs in Canberra, although the spokesperson said Comcare does not yet have a date for when the trial will start.

The spokesperson confirmed news reports federal Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews and Employment Minister Eric Abetz are in favour of the program, which will be targeted at workers with serious or long-term illnesses and injuries rather than an everyday head cold.

“The program is for those that have injuries that require longer periods off work and have some capacity to stay engaged in the workplace,” said the spokesperson.

According to Fairfax, Carol Black met with public service departmental bosses this week to discuss the harm that can be caused to employees who are labelled “sick”.

“I think it’s a very unhelpful concept because if somebody labels you as sick, you emotionally and mentally start to think of yourself as sick,” said Black.

“Many of the reasons that we don’t go to work is because we do have problems and we do have worries that are perfectly containable and we can deal with them,” she said. “So I’d rather we looked at what people can do rather than what they can’t do.”

Peter Gahan, director of the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne, told SmartCompany for GPs issuing doctor’s certificates in Australia, the “primary concern is for the patient and typically they wouldn’t consider the possibility of the patient returning to work on lesser duties”.

However, Gahan said the majority of doctor’s certificates issued to workers would cover everyday illnesses such as colds, stress-related leave or infectious diseases, in which case it is often better for workers to stay home.

And for workers with physical injuries, Gahan said Australia has a well-established return to work scheme and legislation which covers graduated return to work. “So in some respects, this idea is already incorporated,” he said.

Gahan said most small and medium-size employers “want to have a discussion and explore options for returning to work on lesser duties” when one of their employees needs to take extended leave.

“So using a compliance-type certificate might not give the outcomes you want to achieve, as opposed to good management practice,” he said.

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