Obtaining a last-minute sick note for the common cold or a migraine is now as simple as a quick visit to the local pharmacy – but not everyone is happy about the practice.
Community pharmacists are offering ‘absence from work’ certificates, which can be presented to an employer as proof of illness for up to two days off work.
The service, which has seen a spike in demand during the winter months, involves a short assessment of up to 10 minutes by a pharmacist to determine if the employee is unfit for work due to illness or injury.
The average cost for a certificate is anywhere between $20 and $25, depending on the pharmacy.
The practice is legal under the Fair Work Act since its introduction in 2009, and is backed by the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, which says it saves Australian workers time and money.
But Australian Medical Association president Dr Tony Bartone labelled the practice a “missed opportunity” for continuous medical care.
“It’s a glorified document, and doesn’t do anything for long-term care,” Dr Bartone told The New Daily.
On Thursday, a photo featuring a beachside pharmacy offering the certificates on a day with optimal surfing conditions went viral after it was posted to a popular Instagram account.
The photo was taken outside Torquay Pharmacy, which is located in the surfing capital of Australia near Bells Beach in Victoria. By Thursday afternoon the photo had racked up more than 7000 likes and close to 500 comments.
Pharmacist in charge, Sarah French, said staff put up the sign two weeks ago to promote the availability of the certificate.
“Most people come in with cold and flu; sometimes back pain or headaches,” Ms French told The New Daily.
“We’ve all had a bit of a laugh [about the online attention]. But, it’s definitely not intended to give people the day off just because the surf’s up.”
Ms French said most customers are genuine and honest, and often present to the pharmacy after being unable to book a same-day appointment with their GP.
“We are in a position, if we need to, to decline it and send the person to a doctor,” she said.
“We don’t get repeat offenders, and we don’t see the same person every week.”
In March, employer groups criticised the pharmacy sick notes after media reports a Sydney branch of Chemist Warehouse was advertising the service for $20.
A Pharmacy Guild of Australia spokesperson defended the certificates, which are issued under strict guidelines set by the guild and the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia.
“Pharmacies do not ‘sell’ absence from work certificates, any more than doctors do,” Pharmacy Guild spokesperson Greg Turnbull said.
“Pharmacist [sic] are able to issue legally acceptable absence from work certificates after going through the clinical protocols within their scope of practice.
“The fee is for the time it takes for the pharmacist as a health professional to make the clinical assessment – just as a doctor charges a consultation fee.”
Under the Fair Work Act, a pharmacist may issue the certificate for personal leave or carer’s leave. It cannot be issued for pregnancy-related requests or for compassionate leave.
The guild acknowledges that some employers may not accept the certificate as proof of illness over a traditional medical certificate, which can only be issued by a registered medical practitioner.
Dr Aifric Boylan, a practising GP and CEO of online doctor service Qoctor, said demand for online doctor’s certificates has increased in recent years.
“We’re entering our peak season. August is usually our busiest month,” she said.
Viral illnesses (such as head colds and gastroenteritis), migraines and period pain are among the most common reasons workers visit the website.
Since its launch in 2015, Qoctor has issued more than 15,000 medical certificates online. The $20 service is completely online-based, which means patients are assessed via questionnaire followed by a video consultation with one of its qualified GPs.
“Some employers seem to favour a doctor’s certificate. Most people are reasonable and honest and just need that documentation,” Dr Boylan told The New Daily.
“You don’t have to leave the sick bed. That’s a big plus.”
Dr Bartone said the online service is another example of fragmented quality of care.
“A lot more goes into a diagnosis than filling out a questionnaire. There’s a lot that can be missed by not seeing a doctor.”
Responding to the criticism, Dr Boylan said a physical examination is recommended if the online GP detects any “red flags” during the video consultation.
“When we feel someone needs to be physically examined, such as when a person experiences a migraine for the first time, or a woman books an appointment for period pain but experiences irregular bleeding, it might be a red flag to see a doctor in person.
“It comes down to good communication and information gathering.”