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GPs need more training on sickness certification

GPs need more guidance and education in filling out the sick note as almost two thirds have not received any training in sickness certification and, for those who were given training, it lasted on average only four hours.

New research published today in the scientific journal, Occupational Medicine, show only a third of the GPs surveyed are aware the Government has guidelines on sickness certification and even fewer (20%) actually used them. The study showed the amount of time off given for the same illness in ‘straightforward cases' varies considerably.

The study surveyed 113 GPs across a Primary Care Trust and asked them about their training in issuing sick notes. Using case studies it also asked GPs how long after specific illnesses patients should return to work. For example, the researchers asked how long a woman recovering from a hysterectomy should stay off work. In this case, more than three quarters of GPs advised a period of absence from work that did not accord with evidence-based guidelines, and the length of time off sick given ranged from two weeks to more than 13 weeks.
The findings come as the Government prepares to introduce a new medical ‘fit note' to replace the current sick note. This will make certification more complex as GPs will need to spell out the work the patient may be able to do rather than simply sign them off sick.

The financial cost of sickness absence is enormous, costing the UK economy £100 billion a year. However, the human costs are even more worrying. Once a person has been off sick for six months, they only have a 20% chance of returning to work.

The study's author, Dr Richard Roope, said: "This research shows that historically GPs have received very little training in sickness certification so it is not surprising that the quality of this activity is poor. There is good evidence to show that work is generally good for health. We need to get across to GPs and patients alike that being signed off may actually be bad for the health of the patient, their employer and the country as a whole."