As we are all well aware, in 2020, a certain virus changed how we operate in the workplace and in life in general. As a result, the digital world seemed to infiltrate the medical world, and as such we are still coming to terms with the flow on effects.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been many positives as a result of businesses having to adapt to a Covid world, such as businesses adopting a more flexible approach to where work is done, the implementation of new technologies, and a greater emphasis on general wellness in the workplace. However, some of these advances have started to cause more headaches for employers than anything else.

Specifically speaking, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of employees using “online medical certificates” as a form of substantiation for personal leave. As a result, many of our clients have been grappling with whether they should accept these as a legitimate form of evidence.

On face value, questioning a medical certificate of any kind might sound risky, but let’s do a deep dive into this question below.

What is an online medical certificate?

It is exactly how it sounds. Employees are now able to jump online, search for “online medical certificates”, answer a quick questionnaire online about “possible symptoms”, pay a fee and voilà, you’ll have a medical certificate in your email inbox almost instantly.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “they don’t even speak to a doctor?!”, “they could say they are suffering from any symptoms at all – who is sense checking these?”, “surely that’s not allowed!”. Trust me, we had the same questions when we started looking into this new service.

To be absolutely clear, we are not discussing a medical certificate received after a telehealth appointment with an actual doctor. This is a medical certificate obtained by filling in an online questionnaire only.

As an HR Gurus experiment, we jumped online and checked out a number of the provider’s sites. We actually applied for a certificate on a number of websites with varying results. You can read more below about our findings, but interestingly, on one of the sites a disclaimer popped up that said “Please note that this certificate is certified by a Pharmacist and not a Medical professional”. We discuss whether Pharmacists are allowed to issue certificates below and whether you should accept them.

Do I have to accept these certificates?

Whilst there is no prescribed list of evidence an employee must provide to substantiate their personal leave request, medical certificates in general as well as statutory declarations are accepted as common practice. With that said, the Fair Work Ombudsmen states that:

Any evidence must convince a reasonable person that the employee was genuinely entitled to the sick or carer’s leave.

So essentially, if you deem it unreasonable for an employee to provide a medical certificate when they have not actually been seen by a medical professional, then you are within your rights to decline the leave request. It should also be noted that this is where your policies come in. Whether your requirements are outlined in your contracts of employment, your Leave policy or your Enterprise Agreement. Having this in black and white will provide you with more defensible grounds to not accept online medical certificates within your business.

Out of fairness, you may notify the employee that it is not a valid form of evidence and provide them 24 hours to provide more information or evidence to support their claim, but in the event that they fail to do so, the leave may then be processed as unpaid leave.

What are some of the websites that provide online medical certificates?

Countless websites are popping up on the web offering this service, indicating that business is booming. We did a quick search ourselves and found the following:

Youly claim that all requests are reviewed by a Doctor or a Nurse Practitioner. We did a trial to see whether someone actually calls you to discuss your illness or condition before providing a certificate, we asked for one for 2 days because we had gastro. They charge $24.95 for the certificate. There was no call required and it came within minutes of sending the request. The certificate looks really legitimate also with a provider number from a Nurse Practitioner see below: also claims that all requests are reviewed by a Doctor or a Nurse Practitioner. We did a trial to see whether someone actually calls you to discuss your illness or condition before providing a certificate, we asked for one for 2 days. Interestingly it said we already had an account as they also own Youly. The certificate was provided without a call, all based on our answers to some questions online. They also charge $24.95 for the certificate.

The Updoc site is a bit different and they charge $39.95 for their certificates and also offer a subscription service to unlimited consultations per month and telehealth consultations. This service actually took quite a long time, and they offered you the chance to “jump the queue” and for $10 more you could get your certificate within one hour. They claim that the person reviewing the certificate may call you for further information. They didn’t and therefore the certificate is provided on face value with no discussion with an actual medical practitioner.

Unlike all the other sites, Qoctor required an actual video consultation with a doctor so this one seems more legitimate. We would consider accepting certificates from this provider.

The Sicky site provides its service via a phone app. They require a phone / video consultation with a Pharmacist and their site states that:

The Australian Fair Work Act 2009 gives pharmacists the right to assess symptoms and issue certificates as legitimate proof of absence from work or university.

This means that a certificate from Sicky is legitimate proof that you were unable to attend work or university.

However, some workplace agreements or awards can require certificates from a registered medical practitioner (such as a doctor) in certain circumstances. This is generally a rare occurrence. If you believe this may be applicable to you, please confirm this before purchasing a certificate from Sicky.

Once you downloaded the app and go through the set-up process, you are asked to select whether you want a Sick certificate or Carers Leave certificate once you click on that it automatically starts the video call and connects you with what they call a “health care professional”.

On face value, this provider actually requires you to have a conversation with someone so could be deemed more legitimate but if your policy states you only accept certificates from Medical Doctors then you could probably challenge this. They charge $19.95 for your certificate.

We could go on and on with the number of providers out there. They all seem very similar, but we feel that if in doubt you have the right to check and question any certificates you do not feel are 100% legitimate.

What about Statutory Declarations?

We also get asked about Statutory declarations and whether these should be accepted. In our view these are actually a higher standard of evidence than an online certificate. By signing a Stat Dec, a person is agreeing that the information in it is true, and based on this they can be charged with a criminal offence if the information is false, resulting in a fine of up to 600 penalty units or imprisonment for up to 5 years or both.

What other checks can I make to ensure I am reasonably satisfied with a medical certificate?

As an employer, you have a right to ensure that your employees are following your internal policies, including providing reasonable substantiation for a leave request. If you have any doubt as to the validity of a medical certificate, you could implement some of the below strategies;

  • Contact the medical clinic in which it was obtained to confirm that your employee did in fact attend this clinic. Due to privacy reasons, you are not permitted to ask for any further details into the reason why they attended, but you can confirm their attendance.
  • Ensure the doctor who has provided the medical certificate is a registered health practitioner. You can complete this quick check on the Ahpra & National Boards website.
  • Compare the medical certificate with previous medical certificates the employee has provided to determine similarities and whether it has possibly been re-dated and reused.

What if I find an employee is providing false medical certificates?

If your suspicions are proven to be true and an employee has knowingly provided you with a fraudulent certificate, this would warrant disciplinary action. As in any disciplinary matter, a procedurally fair process must be followed, including offering a support person for the disciplinary meeting, presenting the allegations to the employee and allowing them an opportunity to respond before determining an outcome.

After following a procedurally fair process, disciplinary action may look like;

  • The leave being unpaid
  • A written warning
  • Training on your Leave Policy and notification requirements along with your Code of Conduct Policy
  • Termination of employment

Termination of employment may be possible as a final resort but please note consideration should be given to a number of additional factors such as whether this is the first time they have provided a fraudulent certificate or engaged in conduct of a deceitful nature.

Best practice next steps

As we know, preventative measures are the best ones so it is our recommendation to update your Leave Policy to reflect that an online medical or pharmacy certificate will not be considered a valid form of substantiation for sick leave and therefore will not be accepted by the Company. This inclusion and communication of this new addition to the wider Company should help as a deterrent to avoid any uncomfortable conversations down the track.

In addition, it is always good to conduct an audit on personal leave usage to determine whether or not there are any concerning patterns of absence that need to be addressed. We have seen links between those employees likely to use online medical certificates and those that frequently take personal leave days on Fridays or Mondays. Coincidence? Perhaps not. It is best to seek guidance before having these types of conversations as they can be risky and need to be framed in a supportive manner.

Finally, if there appears to be a high level of personal leave and unpaid leave being used within the business and is causing concern, perhaps there are other underlying and less obvious issues that need to be addressed. An employee engagement survey gives employees an opportunity to provide anonymous feedback and will give you an insight into how people are generally feeling within the workplace. This insight can be gold.

To implement any of the above strategies or answer any follow-up questions about online medical certificates (or questionable medical certificates of any kind), don’t hesitate to reach out to HR Gurus for further support.

Written by Maddie Bray

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