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Open Access Research article

Extending the authority for sickness certification beyond the medical profession: the importance of ‘boundary work’

Victoria K Welsh, Tom Sanders*, Jane C Richardson, Gwenllian Wynne-Jones, Clare Jinks and Christian D Mallen

Author Affiliations

Arthritis Research UK Primary Care Centre, Primary Care Sciences, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire ST5 5BG, UK

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BMC Family Practice 2014, 15:100  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-15-100

Published: 17 May 2014

Abstract

Background

The study aimed to explore the views of general practitioners (GPs), nurses and physiotherapists towards extending the role of sickness certification beyond the medical profession in primary care.

Methods

Fifteen GPs, seven nurses and six physiotherapists were selected to achieve varied respondent characteristics including sex, geographical location, service duration and post-graduate specialist training. Constant-comparative qualitative analysis of data from 28 semi-structured telephone interviews was undertaken.

Results

The majority of respondents supported the extended role concept; however members of each professional group also rejected the notion. Respondents employed four different legitimacy claims to justify their views and define their occupational boundaries in relation to sickness certification practice. Condition-specific legitimacy, the ability to adopt a holistic approach to sickness certification, system efficiency and control-related arguments were used to different degrees by each occupation. Practical suggestions for the extension of the sickness certification role beyond the medical profession are underpinned by the sociological theory of professional identity.

Conclusions

Extending the authority to certify sickness absence beyond the medical profession is not simply a matter of addressing practical and organisational obstacles. There is also a need to consider the impact on, and preferences of, the specific occupations and their respective boundary claims. This paper explores the implications of extending the sick certification role beyond general practice. We conclude that the main policy challenge of such a move is to a) persuade GPs to relinquish this role (or to share it with other professions), and b) to understand the ‘boundary work’ involved.

Keywords:
Professional boundaries; Sick certification; Qualitative methods; Sociology of professions; Primary care