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Doctors side with workers' desire to end demand for ‘sick notes’


SICK NOTES ARE SICK JOKES. They are also a waste of their time say doctors. Yet employers still insist on workers getting a doctor’s note when they are off sick with something minor, like a cold or the flu.

Dr. Gary Ernest is a longtime family physician in Liverpool, N.S.  He says sick notes create several problems for workers and doctors. The first problem for workers is just trying to get in to see a doctor on the day they are sick.

“And for people who can’t get in, or don’t have family physicians, that means they’re trying to get sick notes in walk-in clinics from doctors they don’t know.

“Or even taking it to a worse level, sitting around for many hours in an emergency department just to get a sick note.”

Getting sick from getting a sick note

Requiring sick notes can also spread sickness, says Ernest. Workers who are ill may go to work sick and spread their cold or flu; or, go to a clinic where there are people who are sick and catch something from them.

“This is a poor use of physicians’ time, it doesn’t require a physician’s expertise, it’s a poor use of health-care dollars,” he said. Even worse, says Ernest, is the possibility that somebody with something serious may be delayed getting in to see a doctor by someone with nothing more than a cold.

“It decreases access and, as we all know, access to primary-care physicians, primary-care providers at this point, especially primary-care physicians, is a big problem,” he said.

Ernest said it’s also not right that employees have to foot the bill for a doctor’s note, which can cost around $30.

Ernest said there shouldn’t be a requirement for a sick note if it’s for a minor illness. He said there should be an “element of trust” in office culture.

Employers expect healthcare system to pay

“When the sole purpose behind a medical appointment is to satisfy an employer’s administrative need, the appointment offers no real health value to the patient,” says Rebecca Casey, the author of a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study on sick notes.

“The doctor is merely responsible for ensuring that the employee isn’t punished for being sick, or that he or she receives any sick pay they are entitled to.”

“Employers who request these notes are essentially externalizing their own management costs onto our healthcare system as a whole,” says Halifax labour lawyer Katrin MacPhee.

Just another way to pry into workers’ private lives

“These kinds of requests show a sense of entitlement on behalf of the employer, and a disregard for patient privacy,” says Casey.  

“A patient’s medical record is unlikely to prove that a worker suffered from a cold, but may equip employers with sensitive information that could negatively impact the worker’s employment and expose them to unfair treatment in the future.”

A family physician in Bedford, N.S., says a growing demand for sick notes that are so detailed violate the privacy of his patients.

“The employers should not need to know a medical diagnosis,” said Dr. Paul Young. “All they need to know is that there’s a medical reason for it. I feel like any more information is often just used to hold it against the person.”

Young said he has refused to send a company information he believes breaks the confidentiality line. The company wrote back to say a patient may not get paid unless Young supplied the information they wanted.

Generic letters

Instead of medical notes, which can be costly for employees and time consuming for doctors, some medical offices provide patients with generic letters that can be picked up in clinic waiting rooms or downloaded online.

These letters simply remind employers that flu and colds are common, and ask that they treat employees with kindness as they recover. “While these notes have been effective in deterring some, others may remain adamant about obtaining official documentation,” says Casey.

“As part of the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign, the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre is fighting for all workers to have access to more sick days, paid sick days, and an end to sick notes for short-term absences,” says MacPhee.  When you’re sick you deserve time to rest and recover without having to jump through these unnecessary hoops.