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Sick leave certificates: Can you force your employee to disclose what's wrong with him?

by , 30 March 2015
Back in 2002, Government stated that doctors no longer have to disclose illnesses on sick leave certificates without a patient's permission. This because the Health Professions Council of SA ruled this was illegal in terms of the constitutional right to privacy as well as doctors' ethical duty to preserve patient confidentiality.

Why are we talking about this issue 13 years later?

Because shocking news out of Germany has revealed that the co-pilot of last week's Germanwings' tragedy was hiding a hidden illness from his company.

In fact, the authorities have discovered a torn-up sick leave note for the date of the crash.

And that leaves us begging the question: Can you force an employee to disclose what's wrong with him?

Here's what labour law says...

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Sick leave and diagnosis: Do you have a legal right to your employee's medical information

When it comes to what the law constitutes as a 'valid' medical certificate, the Ethical and Professional Rules of the Medical and Dental Professions Board of the Health Professions Council of South Africa provides the following:  
Rule 15.(1) A practitioner shall only grant a certificate of illness if such certificate contains the following information, namely: 
a) The name, address and qualification of the practitioner;
b) The name of the patient;
c) The employment number of the patient (if applicable);
d) The date and time of the examination;
e) Whether the certificate is being issued as a result of personal observations by the practitioner during an examination, or as the result of information received from the patient and which is based on acceptable medical grounds;
f) A description of the illness, disorder or malady in layman's terminology, with the informed consent of the patient:, provided that if the patient is not prepared to give such consent, the medical practitioner or dentist shall merely specify that, in his or her opinion based on an examination of the patient, the patient is unfit to work;
g) Whether the patient is totally indisposed for duty or whether the patient is able to perform less strenuous duties in the work situation;
h) The exact period of recommended a sick leave;
i) The date of issuing of the certificate of illness; and
j) A clear indication of the identity of the practitioner who issued the certificate which shall be personally and originally signed by him or her next to his or her initials and surname in printed or block letters.
(2) If preprinted stationery is used, a practitioner shall delete words which are irrelevant.
(3) A practitioner shall issue a brief factual report to a patient where such a patient requires information concerning himself or herself.
That's pretty self-explanatory right. But what we're interested in is rule (f) of this code. It states that the Doctor should give a description of the illness. 
But, based on the 2002 ruling we discussed earlier, if the nature of the illness could embarrass the patient, they may not.

So what can you do if you feel you the reason for his sick leave?

Well, if you have extremely good reason, for example if this employee is regularly off sick, speak to your employee about getting a letter from his doctor authorising him to disclose the nature of the illness to you.  
Alternatively, if he refuses, request the employee go to the Doctor and obtain the information in terms of rule (3).
Although you can't force him to tell you the reason behind his sick leave, remind him that he has a duty to his fellow employees to keep them safe and healthy. If he puts them at risk, it could end in criminal charges.  

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