Introduction: In Malta, sickness certificates are needed from the first day of illness, and are issued by family doctors (FDs) either employed in the government primary healthcare system, or self-employed in private practice, or employed directly by an employer for this purpose alone. Patients visiting self-employed FDs pay directly, and are not reimbursed unless privately insured. We aimed to contribute to the discussion on the impact of sickness certification in family practice by studying the phenomenon using electronic data from an electronic patient record (EPR) used by self-employed FDs. We used this data to study the frequency of sickness certification and the relationship between the patient's reason for encounter, with or without a formal request for a certificate, and the doctor's diagnosis and certification practice.
Methods: We used data collected by FDs in day-to-day private family practice using an episode-oriented EPR. The EPR database included all encounters in all episodes of care over a period of one year (1 January to 31 December 2001) documented by ten self-employed FDs, comprehensively coded with ICPC-2-E (Electronic Version of the International Classification of Primary Care, version 2).
Results: The EPR database documented care for 7497 patients (45.4% male) over one year. During 15,781 encounters, sickness certificates were issued in 11.3% of 16,319 episodes of care. 5.7% of the reasons for encounter presented by the patient in new episodes were requests for administrative procedures, and this request was made in 8.2% of all new episodes of care.
Conclusion: The distribution of morbidity seen by the FDs appeared to be very wide, with a dominance of acute respiratory, gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal symptoms and diagnoses, and the role of sickness certification was quite important. The frequency of sick leave certification in Malta is comparable with that in other European countries, but the average duration of episodes is shorter. Just over 11% of private FD encounters involve issuing a sickness certificate. The high proportion of reasons for encounter formulated as a request for a sickness certificate suggests that the active role of FDs in this form of social security in the Maltese population has supported the local development of family practice.