By The Editor
A high profile case from Canberra this week has put the topic of the necessity of medical certificates in the spotlight again, and what employers should and shouldn’t do when they receive one from an employee.
Federal Labor MP Craig Thomson has been absent from parliamentary proceedings in Canberra this week due to illness, after being taken to hospital recently with abdominal pains.
Due to the precarious nature of the Federal Government’s one seat majority, the Opposition requested they see a medical certificate before agreeing to a ‘pair’ (where one member from the opposite party will abstain from voting to cancel out an MP’s absence).
The story gained legs when members of the Opposition initially requested more information than was contained in the initial doctor’s medical certificate, which cited ‘abdominal pain’.
Only after a letter from Mr Thomson’s gastroenterologist was then provided did the Opposition decide to grant a ‘pair’ for the entire week.
This prompted criticism from medical practitioners, including the Australian Medical Association (AMA). “Medical certificates need to be deliberately vague,” the AMA’s Brian Morton said this week.
“In most cases it is no-one’s business but the patient’s as to why they’re unfit for work. And it really is a degree of patient privacy that needs to be protected.”
“A medical certificate is a legal document and every doctor knows that if they write an untruth they’re likely to be taken before the Medical Board.”
While this case is unusual due to the high-profile place of work and the current political environment, it does serve as a timely reminder to employers about the merits of a medical certificate.
The Fair Work Act doesn’t specifically mention medical certificates, but states an employee must provide evidence of a personal illness “that would satisfy a reasonable person”. A medical certificate is widely defined to be such satisfactory evidence, especially when provided by a general practitioner.
The AMA guidelines indicate a standard medical certificate should contain the name and address of the medical practitioner, name of the patient, date of examination and certificate, the dates which the patient will be unfit to work, and “supplementary information of assistance to the patient in obtaining the appropriate leave especially where there is a discrepancy in the period for which the certificate is issued and the date of the certificate”.
The guidelines add that a diagnosis is not normally included and employers should respect an employee’s right to keep their diagnosis confidential.
It has been demonstrated that there can occasionally be grounds to challenge a medical certificate, but the onus is on the employer to provide evidence that contradicts the original certificate. VECCI considers that employers electing to challenge evidence should proceed with extreme caution as this has the potential for exposure to an adverse action or discrimination claim.
In addition to the legal obligations, it is imperative that an employer ensures they have a current internal workplace policy relating to work absences that clearly outlines both the notification procedures, which absences require supporting documentary evidence, and the time frame in which this evidence must be provided to the employer.
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