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Bosses intruding on workers' doctor visits

Date

Georgia Wilkins

Should bosses be able to accompany workers to doctor's appointments?

Should bosses be able to accompany workers to doctor's appointments? Photo: Andrew Quilty

BOSSES are increasingly attending doctor appointments with sick employees - and in some cases trying to alter their medical certificates to get them back to work sooner, unions say.

The trend, observed by the ACTU, raises unions' fears that the privacy of ill workers is being eroded. ACTU assistant secretary Michael Borowick said the council had seen a rise in the number of workers being given false or misleading information about their rights when ill or injured.

''The treatment of ill and injured workers is a growing concern,'' he said. ''Employers, insurers and employer representatives are increasingly attending actual medical appointments with injured workers and, in some cases, forcing workers to attend company doctors.

''We've also had reports of doctors being pressured to change medical certificates and return-to-work plans.''

AMA president Steve Hambleton said the report suggested a shift from ''coercion instead of communication'' by companies dealing with work claims.

In one case raised with the ACTU, ''employee C'' lodged a formal complaint with her company, ''Q'', alleging that her manager had contacted her doctor without her knowledge and changed her medical certificate to say ''partial incapacity'' instead of ''total incapacity''.

Another report alleges an employee was told it was ''company policy'' for managers to attend doctors' appointments.

''We are also seeing a disturbing misuse of their personal medical information by employers and third parties,'' Mr Borowick said, with one report of a doctor refusing to deal with a company's claims because of the amount of pressure from the company.

Complaints had come from unions in retail, construction, manufacturing and the public sector, Mr Borowick said.

Dr Hambleton said there was ''a difference between providing information and manipulating an outcome''. ''Individual companies need to know that intruding on patients' privacy is not acceptable.''

Dr Hambleton said doctors should also be aware of the phenomenon and act appropriately.

''We'd be very unhappy if medical certificates were not being respected,'' he said. ''Altering information is a very serious charge … All doctors should know that the prime responsibility is their patient.''

The ACTU blamed the rise of complaints on the growing heft of company doctor networks, such as injuryNET, saying managers were even offering to drive workers to a company doctor instead of workers going alone to their own doctor.

The ACTU also expressed concern over employers seeking regular access to all health information, rather than that related to a current workplace injury. This included using legal means to force workers to reveal medical information and attend medical assessments.

In May, construction materials supplier Boral was warned by Fair Work Australia against allowing supervisors to accompany injured staff into doctors' consulting rooms, with the workplace umpire saying it had the potential to operate unfairly.

But, according to the Fair Work Ombudsman, the Fair Work Act does not contain express provisions regarding whether an employer can accompany an employee to a medical appointment or have a private conversation with a doctor regarding the employee's medical condition.

The privacy commissioner was unavailable for comment yesterday.

The Age has launched a series on privacy and wants to hear from you. Email privacy@theage.com.au, visit The Privacy Question Facebook page, use Twitter hashtag #ageprivacy or tweet us @privacyquestion 

202 comments

  • The Fair Work Act doesn't need provisions against employers having private discussions with doctors about an employee's medical condition. It's already both illegal and a gross breach of medical ethics for the doctor to disclose confidential medical information like that, and if there's any evidence of doctors doing that they should be investigated.

    Employers who think that acting like this will help productivity- or that productivity will improve further if they gain the legal right to be even more overbearing to employees- are completely kidding themselves.

    Commenter
    Arky
    Date and time
    September 26, 2012, 12:07AM
    • What next? They justify it as covering their arses over Workcare claims. Next it will be wholesale drug and pregnancy tests. I'm not kidding. Look at some states in America. Some demand tests to prove you haven't smoked nicotine or pot after work. There was an article not long ago about recruitment agencies demanding applicants social media passwords. People were complying because they are desperate for work. It's intrusive and unnecessary. The workcover applicant goes to a doctor. The doctor submits a truthful report, because if they don't their arse is on the line (if they file false or misleading reports they will be disciplined in various ways. A humiliation none of them want to face) and the company has to accept it. The only reason they would attend is to bully the doctor or employee into producing the result THEY want. If their poor work conditions or practices caused an employee injury stiff titties. Pay up.

      The more the information age progresses the more employers, big business and government want to know everything about you. And they do it without a blush with the excuse that as they pay your pittance of a wage it entitles them to know pretty much everything about you. That people who 'have nothing to hide hide nothing'. That is utter crap. Everyone is entitled to their privacy. The laws that we have now were hard fought for and should be protected with every fibre of our being.

      Commenter
      Mabel
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 6:21AM
    • I just don't believe this claim. It comes from the union.

      Commenter
      LiklikManki
      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 7:07AM
    • This is nothing more than UNION PROPOGANDA to try and gain sympathy for their own thuggish behaviour. If there's any crime being committed, it's not being committed by the bosses. Speaking of which, congratulations to John Setka for his selection as head honcho of the CFMEU. There is nothing FAIR about Gillard's Fair Work Act. And just how many millions will the unions give her party next year?

      Commenter
      jane
      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 7:36AM
    • LiklikMank and Jane...I totally agree with you.

      Commenter
      Hawker
      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 7:54AM
    • Unless you're contributing as much to the election coffers of the major parties as the industry and business groups are, I'm afraid your opinion doesn't matter.
      Western 'democracies' whored their politicians out to the highest bidder decades ago. We're all forced through the charade of elections every few years but the reality is, as soon as the votes are in, the pollies stop even pretending to listen to anyone but their biggest donors, and they're under no obligation to even deliver what they promised during the campaign.
      Western civilisation: we're doing it wrong lol.

      Commenter
      Jimmy
      Location
      Melbs
      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 7:58AM
    • LiklikMank & Jane, I love a good bit of rhetoric as much as the next ignorant fool, but as someone who had a workplace injury and was expected to not only allow a supervisor to attend an appointment with my doctor but then go and get an independant assessment from a company doctor, I can assure you that just about everything in the article does indeed happen. Unless you've been subject to it you wouldn't now about it.

      Fortunately (or unfortunately) because my injury ws a legitimate back injury, my return to work plans and doctor's certificates all stayed as they should have but to put your fingers in your ears and cry "UNION PROPAGANDA" just because you've never seen it yourself is just ridiculous. It might not be happening everywhere, but it certainly is happening.

      Commenter
      PipsAhoy
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 8:24AM
    • LiklikMank and Jane and Hawker - you have to read all the way to the bottom where the journalist has done her own research and found that Boral was warned about this exact behaviour.
      I can't believe it either.

      Commenter
      franzy
      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 8:28AM
    • I also would have thought it was against medical ethics to divulge personal information to a third party like an employer. I think the article may be a little misleading in that it would appear the employees are not going for a common cold but for a workplace injury where a person would be off on compo or disability pension. If it is those cases then I would suggest that an employer does have the right to a second opinion but not to attend the appointments etc. It is a difficult issue as you want to see the workers rights upheld however I have seen cases of people rorting the system (actually have a friend whose wife is on workers comp but the cause is more likely to be another issue which is similar).

      Commenter
      Lawrie
      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 8:36AM
    • Jimmy, all one has to do is read Lindsay Tanner's thoughts on this same subject to see how the current gov't has manipulated us all, spent or given away all our money trying to buy votes whether here or at the UN. In spite of this, we need gov't, and believe it or not, I have met quite a few sincere politicans who aren't careerists and who do care about our nation and its interests. Do your research before you vote.

      Commenter
      jones
      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 8:37AM

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