Kevin, MD had a post yesterday linking to an article in The Atlantic about how physicians in Wisconsin were standing on street corners and writing work excuses for protesting teachers. Videos in the Atlantic article showed the the doctors were writing notes for “stress” based solely on a patient’s history without performing physical examinations. The Atlantic article questions the physicians’ integrity and states that the “profession of medicine has a black eye in this case.”
The author of the Atlantic article is a physician who also writes on health care policy. He calls doctor’s work notes “an employer’s desire to verify through a respected, independent, medically qualified third party the fact of an illness and the true need for convalescence.” I respectfully disagree.
In many of the cases that I see from my practice and those discussed with me regarding other physicians’ private practices, doctor’s work notes have become little more than a legal CYA document for employers and a hoop that employees have to jump through in order to take time off of work.
Can people with a cold go to work? Sure. But if everyone else at work gets sick, then the employer complains to the hospital about why the employee was allowed to return to work. If the employee is given a note not to return to work until symptoms resolve, then the employer complains to the hospital that the doctors are giving the patients too long off of work.
If doctors write for prescription medications for a work injury, or write a patient off of work for more than one day, then employers complain because the care the patient received makes the injury reportable to OSHA.
Employers also put physicians in an ethical bind when they require a doctor’s note for patients who took off time for an illness and are then feeling better and want to go back to work. I can write a note stating that patients are cleared to go back to work, but then patients return and state that the employer needs a doctor to certify that the patients needed to be off of work for the prior “illness” which is now gone and for which the patient never sought medical care.
Commenters to Kevin’s article stated that the doctors were creating inappropriate “legal documents,” were being unethical and were “disgracing the medical profession.”
I think that these statements smack of hypocrisy. Physicians in private practice are monetarily pressured to keep patients happy by doing what the patients want. Hospital based physicians are pressured by the hospitals and by Press Ganey’s patient satisfaction scores to provide sometimes inappropriate care to patients to make the patients happy. In case you had any doubts, refusing to write a note required by a patient’s employer will not make the patients happy. Here’s another example of a patient upset at not getting a 9 month work note from Serenity Now Hospital.
If a physician writes a note off work for a patient because that patient had vomiting “last week” and can’t go back to work without a doctor’s excuse, I don’t think that “legal document” is any less fraudulent than the notes being written on Wisconsin street corners. Yet there is a public outcry in one instance and the other instance is considered “business as usual.”
Just like in medicine, employers are going to get what they pay for. If you require a doctor’s note for an employee to return to work, patients will always be able to find a physician to write them a “note” for work. A work note doesn’t necessarily mean that the employees were really sick. Sometimes it only means that some physicians bow to societal pressures more than others.
The fact that physicians have to be put in that position gives society just as big of a “black eye” as the physicians.
A patient comes into the emergency department with a harsh cough for several days. Little bit of a runny nose. No fever. Might be influenza, might be some other upper respiratory tract virus. Upset over not getting antibiotics. Given some cough medication and discharged.
Then comes the money question: “What about work?”
“What do you mean?”
“Aren’t I contagious?”
“Probably. But you could technically be contagious for another week or two. Do you think you need to stay off of work that long because you have a cough?”
Wrong thing to say.
“I work around people, though.”
“If you cover your mouth when you cough and you wash your hands regularly, you shouldn’t have a problem.”
“I work in a fast food restaurant, so I’m around food that customers will eat.”
“So you can’t avoid coughing on their food? I guess you could wear a mask … you know what, sir … what else is there that you need for me to do for you today?”
“I need a note for work. My boss won’t let me back until I’m not contagious.”
“I can’t predict when you won’t be contagious any more.”
“Before, you said it could be up to two weeks.”
“So you want a note for two weeks off of work because you have a cold?”
“My boss won’t let me work if I’m contagious. What if I get other people sick?”
This ended up being another one of those no-win situations. If I say “I’m not giving you a work note for your cough,” then the person goes and gets people sick at work and the business complains to the hospital administration. Don’t roll your eyes, it’s happened before. If I write a note like the patient wants, then I look like a dimwit for giving someone off of work for a cold … and the employer complains to administration because the patient was given an extended absence.
So I wrote the following note:
This patient is suffering from a viral upper respiratory infection. This disease can last for up to several weeks and can be spread from one person to another by direct inhalation of viral particles or by coming into contact with contaminated surfaces, including hands. The spread of disease can be reduced by covering one’s mouth when coughing, by washing hands frequently, and by wearing a mask. You, the employer should consider these factors in deciding whether this patient is able to continue working at your facility.
What would you do?