A new initiative will provide the UK government with access to NHS records in order to identify which general practitioners administer the greatest number of sick notes.
But the idea has already been strongly criticised by both doctors and privacy campaigners.
The idea has been dismissed as little more than state nooping, and suggestions that data could be utilised in order to name and shame GPs who are perceived as soft have already been voiced.
Yet despite the controversy around the policy, the government still plans to go ahead with the procedure in the near future.
From next month, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will be able to see information extracted from GP records, including the number of fit notes issued by each practice and the number of patients recorded as “unfit” or “maybe fit” for work.
Responding to criticism of the idea, the Department for Work and Pensions suggested that the information would provide a better understanding of why people take sickness leave in different regions of the UK.
Commenting on the issue, Dr Peter Swinyard, of the Family Doctor Association, was pretty scathing in his assessment.
“I think that is state snooping. I don’t know if patients understand that when I write a fit note, some bureaucrat is going to be able to have a look at it Although I am sure some civil servant thought it was a terrific idea somewhere, I am not entirely sure I agree. I don’t know if patients understand that when I write a fit note, some bureaucrat is going to be able to have a look at it.”
Records acquired by the DWP will provide information on the number of computer-generated footnotes, how many patients are recorded as unfit or maybe fit for work, the duration of footnotes, and the gender of persons involved.
The DWP claims that all sick note statistics are completely anonymous, and that the information will simply provide a better understanding of the sickness absence in the UK.
However, an investigation carried out by Pulse magazine found that the claims of the DWP do not necessarily stand up to scrutiny.
The government organisation previously claimed that the data involved would be published anonymously at Clinical Commissioning Group level.
But the publication instead found that it will be possible for officials working for the DWP to view data for individual GP practices, while data sharing with other bodies will also be enabled.
The data will also indicate what type of health condition the person is suffering with and the location of where the note was issued.
Understandably, this has already generated a great deal of controversy and opposition.
Nonetheless, a spokesman on behalf of the DWP defended the policy of the government department.
“We know the damage that can be done when people are absent from the workplace for extended periods of time, that’s why we want to ensure that people get the best possible support to return to work – or to avoid falling out of work in the first place. All fit note statistics are anonymous, and they will help provide a better understanding of why people take sickness absence in different areas across the country, so we can make the service as effective as possible for businesses and employees.”
While GP and patient privacy has been a cause for concern, it is also suggested that the information will be extremely misleading outside of the context of surgery discussions.
Despite the apparent concerns of the government, the estimated number of working days lost has fallen from around 39.5 million in 2000-02 to 27.3 million in 2014/15.