In April 2022 the Government introduced new rules allowing GP’s to sign Fit notes digitally. Following on from that new secondary legislation has been laid before Parliament that will significantly expand the persons who can complete a Fit Note. A fit note is usually required to ne issued to an employer to cover any sickness absence that lasts one week or more.
The Social Security (Medical Evidence) and Statutory Sick Pay (Medical Evidence) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2022 have been laid before Parliament and the changes within this will come into effect on 1 July 2022.
Although I suspect its use within social security law is more malign within the employment field the newer fit notes (rather than older sick notes) can be a positive tool for employees to minimise unnecessary sickness absence by highlighting adjustments that the employer could consider. If an employee is absent on sickness after the employer has been made aware of things it can do to minimise this can help avoid consequential adverse treatment (such as attendance warnings).
The new regulations do nothing to change that position but what they do legislate upon is that it will no longer be Drs who are authorised to issue fit notes. In place of “doctor” the legislation authorises any “healthcare professional” may issue a fit note to an employer. A healthcare professional is defined as a “registered medical practitioner” (defined in Schedule one of the Interpretations Act 1978), a registered nurse, a registered occupational therapist or registered physiotherapist or a registered pharmacist.
The reason for the change, according to the government, is to ease the pressure upon GPs and I think broadly this is a positive move (at least insofar as employment fit notes is concerned).
The broader range of professionals who can complete a fit note opens up the possibility that the “may be fit to work” sections are more effectively used, especially where practitioners like occupational therapists can give more expert and practical recommendations. This is something I think employees and trade union reps should be aware of as it may allow more meaningful interventions when fit notes are issued.
While broadly supporting the change I was concerned about the inclusion of pharmacists but in a briefing the Royal Pharmaceutical Society has confirmed that the authority of pharmacists is limited and will not include community pharmacists (and have also raised resourcing concerns): “This should not affect community pharmacists at the current time as community pharmacy has not been commissioned to certify fit-notes and you will not have access to the necessary health records required to support you in this role.”
One would imagine that there will be tightly prescribed guidance from professional bodies as to the necessity for healthcare professionals to act within their competence but this is something it will also be important to be alert to as I can imagine some HR departments taking a more critical role of decisions of some of the professions and, with it, more challenges to employees as to the legitimacy of absences if there is a perception that the fit note is outside the scope of professional expertise.
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