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Validity of Medical Certificates

Published 17 Jul 2020

As per the Business NZ Workplace Wellness Report 2019, New Zealand lost around 7.4 million working days due to absences in 2018. Time lost to absence averaged 4.7 days per employee, and it's estimated to cost the economy $NZD 1.79 billion. These figures are growing each year and has a direct effect on productivity of New Zealand business.

While companies need to allow and ensure sick staff stay at home to recover properly, there is also a need to question absence and not just tolerate abuse of sick leave. While unused sick leave entitlements are generally not paid out, we do have a widespread trend of workers who view sick leave entitlement as free days off, to be used regardless of any ailment.

It is therefore vital to ensure that abuse of sick leave is minimised in your business. Legislation provides assistance in this manner by allowing Employers to request medical information/certificates. Simply receiving the information alone is not sufficient, it is important to understand the validity of the information received from your staff as it relates to their sick leave entitlement.

Investigating the information supplied needs to be used to identify abuse of sick leave, incapacity concerns and even Health and Safety risks in your workplace.

Who can complete a medical certificate

  • A doctor, that is registered to practice in New Zealand and has a current Annual Practicing Certificate.
  • A nurse practitioner – within their scope of practice.
  • A dentist, where the employee’s absence is dental-related.
  • A midwife, where the employee’s absence relates to pregnancy.

Content of a medical certificate

As stated by the Medical Council of New Zealand, all medical certificates are legal documents and any statement a health practitioner certifies must be honest and made in good faith. If you are concerned that a doctor has not complied with the requirements of the Council’s statement, you can lodge a complaint with the Medical Council or the Office of the Health and Disability Commissioner.

All medical certificates need to:

  • be written legibly, minimising the use of medical terms for easy comprehension;
  • disclose only information that is accurate and based upon clinical observation, any patient comment should be clearly distinguished from clinical observation;
  • clearly identify the examination date and the expected period of treatment or recovery;
  • retrospective certificates should be clearly identified as such and not exceed more than 5 days;
  • contain useful and specific information on what duties/tasks an employee can and can’t do – as well as what capacity he/she has for alternative duties.

Investigation guidelines

Lodging an investigation into the validity of information supplied must only be done if there is a reasonable suspicion that the information is incorrect and/or justified by an internal process such as incapacity. Acting in good faith must remain consistently and throughout the process.

Investigations can include:

  • Referring to the employee’s sick leave history and pre-existing factors;  
  • Direct communication with the employee, unless authorised by the employee to deal directly with the health care provider;
  • Requesting more detail from the employee;
  • Getting authorisation from the employee to contact the health care provider for more detail;
  • Requesting subsequent medical opinions, at the company's cost.

When requesting and/or investigating a medical certificate, the employment agreement and/or your company policy and procedures are the first point of reference.  If your company documentation is silent about this scenario we would recommend following our Medical Incapacity eBook on the subject. This is a free download to clients from your Library section in the Employers Toolbox