Obtaining and responding to medical information in the workplace: A summary for doctors

INFORMATION SHEET

A printable PDF version of this information sheet is available.

The Alberta Human Rights Commission offers a detailed interpretive bulletin called Obtaining and responding to medical information in the workplace, which provides comprehensive information for doctors, employees, unions and employers about the human rights aspects of this topic. This publication summarizes the key points for doctors from the interpretive bulletin. It discusses medical information as it relates to human rights issues in the area of employment only. It is for educational purposes and is not intended to be legal advice.

Questions about:

Employers request medical information to make decisions about accommodating an employee or potential employee or to confirm an employee's absence for medical reasons. Doctors, employers, employees and unions all play a role in gathering reasonable medical information on an employee's disability.

  • Doctors are expected to respond to requests from patients for medical information by releasing the information to a third party in a reasonable time frame.[1]
  • Employers play a key role in requesting relevant medical information.
  • Employees and unions have a duty to actively participate in supplying information to support a medical absence or request for accommodation and to respond to employer requests for medical information.

In this publication, doctors will find:

  • information on the kind of medical documentation an employer can request from an employee;
  • a Sample Medical Absence Form that may be used to provide the employee with the necessary information that they need to give to their employer to confirm that an absence from work is for medical reasons; and
  • a Sample Medical Ability to Work Form that may be used to provide the employer with the information necessary to make decisions about accommodating the employee, providing disability leave, or assessing if the employee can return to work.

What information should a doctor provide when asked for information related to a medical absence?

Generally, employees have a right to privacy regarding their medical information. When providing medical information for a medical absence, the doctor should ensure that the information only:

  • relates to the operation of the workplace and the job duties of the employee, and
  • is relevant to the time period of the absence.

The employer does not have an unconditional right to full disclosure of the employee's medical situation. Some disability-related absences may not require medical documentation. For instance, short or infrequent absences will likely only require minimal medical information, such as confirmation that the absence is directly related to the employee's health.

There are very limited circumstances when a doctor needs to disclose the diagnosis.

What information should a doctor provide when an employee wants to return to work or needs accommodation at work?

Accommodation means making changes to certain rules, standards, policies, workplace cultures and physical environments to ensure that they don't have a negative effect on a person because of the person's mental or physical disability or any other protected ground. For more information on accommodation, see the Commission interpretive bulletin Duty to accommodate.


When an employee is returning to work after a medical absence, the employer may request that the employee's doctor confirm in writing that the employee is fit to return to work.

When accommodation is necessary, the employer, the employee, and the union, if there is one, have a duty to cooperate in the accommodation process. The doctor may provide information such as the following to help the employer and employee determine what accommodations are necessary:

  • whether the illness or injury is permanent or temporary;
  • what functional restrictions and limitations an employee has; and
  • whether a treatment or medication the employee is taking will affect the employee's ability to perform job duties in a satisfactory and safe manner.

The doctor should provide only the information that is necessary to help the employer make decisions about accommodating the employee, providing disability leave, or confirming the employee's absence for medical reasons. If the employer is unsatisfied with the medical information that has been provided, they may ask for further information. However, the employer should use the least intrusive method possible to get only the information that is needed to assess the employee's situation. For instance, an employer must first try to get the medical information they require from the employee's doctor or specialist before requiring an independent medical examination.
 
In most cases, a doctor would not provide:

  • information to the employer over the phone.

    Even a confirmation that the doctor saw the employee should be made in writing. If the employee gives permission to contact the doctor directly, this contact should be made in writing. Talking to the doctor on the phone may result in a different understanding between the employer and the doctor as to what was said during the call, creating unnecessary and unhelpful conflict. The employee may feel that the call to the doctor is harassing and a potential invasion of privacy. 
  • a definitive opinion that the employee will have no further medical problems.

    It is unreasonable to expect a doctor to guarantee that an employee's disability is completely resolved or that they will have no further medical issues. Such a demand would reasonably be considered harassing in the majority of situations. 
  • medical information that is not employment-related.

    Only information that is related to the employee's functional ability to perform specific job duties is relevant to the analysis of an employer's needs. For instance, an employer does not need to know information about an employee's restriction on lifting if their job or any modified work does not involve lifting. 
  • the employee's diagnosis, except in very limited cases.

    To request a diagnosis, the employer must show that the information is necessary and that they have tried all other methods to assess the employee's functional ability to return to work or accommodation needs.

    If the employer can satisfy the legal requirement to show it is reasonable to request the diagnosis, then the employer and the doctor must make sure the employee's privacy rights are protected. For example, when providing completed forms, it may be preferable for the doctor to give the form to the employee to give directly to the employer.

What if different doctors give conflicting medical information?

Conflicting medical opinions between a family doctor and a specialist, between two specialists, or between a WCB doctor and an independent doctor are common. Usually the opinion of an independent specialist who practises in the area of the employee's disability will be accepted over the opinion of a family doctor.

If two specialists give conflicting information on an issue, then the employer may try to:

  • review the information to see if it is in conflict on the pertinent points;
  • check with a general practitioner to find out if the specialists are reputable in their area of expertise; and
  • check with a general practitioner to find out if each specialist's area of expertise matches the disability that is being assessed.

For more information

  1. The Commission interpretive bulletin Obtaining and responding to medical information in the workplace offers a full discussion of this topic as it relates to doctors, employers, employees, and unions.

  2.  Doctors may want to adapt the Commission's Sample Medical Absence Form and Sample Medical Ability to Work Form for use in their practices.

  3. The Commission's interpretive bulletin Duty to Accommodate provides more information on accommodation and undue hardship.

  4. Contact the Alberta Medical Association or the College of Physicians & Surgeons.

[1] The College of Physicians & Surgeons of Alberta's policy Physicians' Office Medical Records states that a response to a request for medical information " . should be timely, generally within one to two weeks unless needed more urgently." 

Please note: A complaint must be made to the Alberta Human Rights Commission within one year after the alleged incident of discrimination. The one-year period starts the day after the date on which the incident occurred. For help calculating the one-year period, contact the Commission.

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October 2009

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