Open Access Research article

Health problems and disability in long-term sickness absence: ICF coding of medical certificates

Roland Morgell, Lars G Backlund*, Britt Arrelöv, Lars-Erik Strender and Gunnar H Nilsson

Author Affiliations

Center for Family and Community Medicine, Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

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BMC Public Health 2011, 11:860  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-860

Published: 11 November 2011



The purpose of this study was to test the feasibility of International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) and to explore the distribution, including gender differences, of health problems and disabilities as reflected in long-term sickness absence certificates.


A total of 433 patients with long sick-listing periods, 267 women and 166 men, were included in the study. All certificates exceeding 28 days of sick-listing sent to the local office of the Swedish Social Insurance Administration of a municipality in the Stockholm area were collected during four weeks in 2004-2005. ICD-10 medical diagnosis codes in the certificates were retrieved and free text information on disabilities in body function, body structure or activity and participation were coded according to ICF short version.


In 89.8% of the certificates there were descriptions of disabilities that readily could be classified according to ICF. In a reliability test 123/131 (94%) items of randomly chosen free text information were identically classified by two of the authors. On average 2.4 disability categories (range 0-9) were found per patient; the most frequent were 'Sensation of pain' (35.1% of the patients), 'Emotional functions' (34.1%), 'Energy and drive functions' (22.4%), and 'Sleep functions' (16.9%). The dominating ICD-10 diagnostic groups were 'Mental and behavioural disorders' (34.4%) and 'Diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue' (32.8%). 'Reaction to severe stress and adjustment disorders' (14.7%), and 'Depressive episode' (11.5%) were the most frequent diagnostic codes. Disabilities in mental functions and activity/participation were more commonly described among women, while disabilities related to the musculoskeletal system were more frequent among men.


Both ICD-10 diagnoses and ICF categories were dominated by mental and musculoskeletal health problems, but there seems to be gender differences, and ICF classification as a complement to ICD-10 could provide a better understanding of the consequences of diseases and how individual patients can cope with their health problems. ICF is feasible for secondary classifying of free text descriptions of disabilities stated in sick-leave certificates and seems to be useful as a complement to ICD-10 for sick-listing management and research.