Coronavirus: Can you request medical info from an employee's doctor?

Employers are under pressure to keep a closer eye on employees' health

Coronavirus: Can you request medical info from an employee's doctor?

The threat of a coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic may introduce changes to the way employers across the world handle sick leave entitlements. In the UK, for instance, the government is looking to review workplace health policies that require a doctor’s note for absences of more than a week.

In New Zealand, however, workplace regulations continue to give employers the right to request a medical certificate from a worker who has been on sick leave for at least three consecutive days, as proof of their illness and as clearance that they are fit to return.

“The employee would have to go usually to their GP and get a medical certificate and they would pay for that,” employment lawyer Sherridan Cook told HRD.

Absences from work in connection to the Covid-19 outbreak, however, could extend up to 14 days or longer considering the incubation period of the disease, the severity of the patient’s infection and the recovery period they require.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: What to do if someone at work is a suspect case

Employers who suspect that a worker may have been exposed to the coronavirus – especially when the likelihood of infection is high – can request the worker to undergo medical screening and to secure a doctor’s certificate even before asking them to go on extended leave.

Such precaution can be done “only if [employers] cover the cost of getting the certificate,” the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment advises.

The worker can also typically choose which doctor they would like to consult. In the case of the coronavirus outbreak, the Ministry of Health has released guidelines for handling suspected cases.

In the event that the worker refuses to take the test to ascertain their condition, then the employer “would most likely be justified in telling the employee to stay home and, possibly, in not paying that employee,” Employment New Zealand writes.

If an employer decides to send the worker home, then the company must revaluate their duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.

Bear in mind that an employer cannot force an employee to go on medical leave if they are not ill.

“The fact that an employee has been exposed to the virus does not mean that they are sick,” Employment New Zealand adds. “The Holidays Act requires an employer and employee to try and agree on when annual holidays are to be taken.”

Can an employer check medical records with an employee’s doctor?
An employer can order a medical screening to be done only if the worker consents to it. But, given how highly contagious Covid-19 is, employers are also under pressure to keep a closer eye on their employees and to stay updated on their condition.

Can an employer check with the employee’s doctor regarding their patient’s health?

Under New Zealand’s Health Information Privacy Code 1994, a health agency that holds the medical records of an employee cannot release private data without the employee’s consent.

There is a caveat, however. Sensitive information may be disclosed if the health agency believes on reasonable grounds that the disclosure is “necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to public health or safety” or to the life or health of the employee and other individuals.

Even then, however, the scope of the data to be disclosed should be limited to only what is essential to protecting the employee, workplace and community.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: How can HR manage remote staff?

The most important thing to consider is for employers and employees to stay in constant communication throughout the ordeal, especially when they are deciding on alternative work arrangements and leave entitlements for the employee.

In some cases, employers provide a workaround to these unique situations of requiring medical proof: they incorporate a medical verification clause in their employment contracts.

Under such agreement, a worker may be required to submit to medical testing and to show proof of their condition. This aims to give both the employer and employee a better understanding of where they stand on matters such as extending the medical leave period or providing remote work access. 

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