E-certificates? Increase in ‘sickies’ and the many other causes for concern

By Michael Selinger on July 6th, 2017

A recent development in the provision of medical certificates may see a significant increase in the number of ‘sickies’ taken by Australian workers this year.

A couple of years ago, the idea of a “fit for work” certificate was introduced, to focus on the capacity of an injured or ill worker to perform their duties, rather than only considering their inability to work. This was a positive development for those interested in promoting successful return to work programs for workers.

However, the ABC News recently reported on an alarming trend the other way – the ability to get a medical certificate online, with some websites offering e-certificates for as little as $20. Smartphone apps are also offering the medical certificate service. One such app, called The Sickie, originated in Melbourne and conducts consultations via a video call.

For an e-certificate, the employee participates in an online consultation with a pharmacist or doctor who then issues the signed e-certificate.

Many causes for concern with e-certificates

While the ABC reported that the Australian Medical Association are concerned about the health risks in not having an in-person consultation, another serious concern for employers is whether this ease of access will lead to an increase in sickies.

The new e-certificate may also cause employers challenges in trying to understand the level of capacity of a worker looking to return to work. For example, an ill worker who returns to work too early may still infect others, resulting in more workers becoming unwell. The reliability of an online medical certificate may present some real difficulties for employers seeking to understand the safety of bringing a worker back to work.

Is an e-certificate reliable evidence?

The question is whether an e-certificate is sufficient evidence that would satisfy a reasonable person as to capacity of the employee to work. It is quite likely that employers will have to take further steps to assess where the medical certificate has come from and on what basis was it issued.

In other words, can a medical assessment not undertaken in person be treated as an effective medical assessment? The AMA certainly seem to think it is problematic.

In time, employers may need to consider clearer policy guidelines around the use by staff of online medical examinations and whether they will be accepted by the business or not.

As Dr Bartone from the AMA told ABC NSW: “It’s important to realise that a medical certificate is an important and legal document and it needs to be given that respect and gravitas”.

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