No one is very happy with the present system of GP sick notes. GPs are widely felt to sign them off all too readily without any clear idea of the nature of the patient’s job. Often there might be plenty of useful work the employee could get on with, but the poor old employer has no say in the matter. Well, all of this is about to change…
Following last year’s consultation on replacing sick notes with ‘fit notes’ the Government has announced sweeping reforms from April 2010. The most significant change is that a doctor will now be able to consider whether their patient ‘may be fit for work taking account of the following advice’ as opposed to the current system where the doctor can only certify whether the patient is fit to work or not. There will be no option for a doctor to certify a patient as fit for work.
So the onus will be on the employer to make a decision as to whether to allow a return to work. A further substantial change is that the new ‘fit note’ will also list a number of suggested measures an employer could introduce to assist a return to work such as: ‘a phased return to work’ ‘amended duties’, ‘altered hours’, and ‘workplace adaptations’.
The theory behind the new ‘fit note’ system is that it will reduce the UK economy’s sickness absence bill. The measures seek to encourage communication between the employer and the employee’s doctor in an attempt to increase the possibility of an early return to work and reduce the chance of long term absence. This seems to be a very good idea.
Measures to facilitate an early return should now be identified at an earlier stage. However, if employers ignore the doctor’s advice they could find themselves at an increased risk of claims for disability discrimination. Another risk is that the recommendation from the doctor will be too costly or problematic to implement.
The Government may face some opposition from doctors and GPs who will be reluctant to give an opinion on whether their patient can or cannot complete their job and what changes may facilitate an early return.
The key from an employer’s perspective will be to ensure that the GP or doctor has a full understanding of the workplace environment, the job undertaken by the employee and what changes if any could be accommodated to facilitate an early return to work.
The theory of greater communication at an earlier stage between an employer and their employee’s doctor is a good one, but there are bound to be teething problems with the introduction of the new system.