Sick notes for sale

2014-01-11 00:00

STAFF at a doctor’s office in Pietermaritzburg have allegedly been caught selling sick notes to patients not diagnosed with any illnesses.

A female employee at Dr Y. Mahomed’s office in Laager Centre, a business and residential centre in upper Langalibalele Street, allegedly sold a medical certificate to an undercover private investigator in November last year.

The employee allegedly gave the investigator, who was using the pseudonym S. Gumede, five days off, saying he was suffering from gastroenteritis/influenza. She stated the days he was under treatment for the illness and allegedly forged the doctor’s signature.

The investigator allegedly paid over R150 for five days off work. Weekend Witness understands it allegedly costs just R100 for three days off work.

This is also common in Durban where private investigators said some doctors they investigated were charging as much as R200 for sick notes.

Johan du Preez of Experto Creet Investigation and Security said he was contracted by a manufacturing company in Pietermaritzburg that had allegedly experienced an abnormal increase in sick notes handed in by employees, all from the same doctor.

“I would say over a period of six months they noticed there had been an increase in the sick notes coming through and all were from the same doctor … This raised their concerns,” he said.

“… employees who had other illnesses and were using different doctors were suddenly getting notes from this doctor and that also raised concerns.

“We sent one of our investigators with recording devices. A female employee asked him whether he was sick or if he needed a sick note. If he was sick, he would need to make an appointment to consult with the doctor,” said Du Preez.

In the recording seen by Weekend Witness, the investigator asks for time off work. He moves to another room where he speaks to another woman about the sick note and the sick note is written out and signed by the woman. He produces money and is given a receipt for R150 without seeing a doctor or having any diagnosis performed.

Du Preez said, “The doctor was not in the office at the time and has two other surgeries in the Durban area … We only investigated the Pietermaritzburg office.”

Dr Y. Mahomed, who refused to supply his first name, confirmed the sick notes came from his office, after requesting they be physically presented to him at his Pietermaritzburg office.

After a quick glance at the note dated 28/11/2013, Mahomed said, “I saw that patient [the investigator] that day.”

When told there was a recording of the transaction, he backtracked, saying he was mistaken about the dates and on the date the note was issued, he was not at the Pietermaritzburg offices. “I thought this [consultation] was the December date when I was here.”

Pressed for comment, he distanced himself from the sale of the sick note. “Am I in the picture? All I know is that I do not sell sick notes.”

On the allegation that his employees sold sick notes and whether they could speak, he declined to speak further, saying, “I will not comment on this”.

He said he was fearful to speak as his office had been broken into and he had been a victim of crime several times.

Attempts to speak to the woman alleged to have written out the sick note were unsuccessful.

• thamsanqam@witness.co.za

THE Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) said they had not received complaints about the doctor but such allegations were serious.

Sundeep Singh of Sundeep Singh & Associates, who also chairs the disciplinary committee for the HPCSA, said such activity can cost the doctor his or her career.

“In terms of the law, this is illegal. The onus is on the employer to prove that the sick note was illegal, if they have proved that, the doctor can face heavy sanction, either to be fined or struck off”, said Singh.

He said the doctor was still liable regardless of whether he knew of the illegal activity. “It’s their responsibility to ensure that the people who work for them are honest and would not engage in illegal activity.

“If his [sick note] pad was used, he is still responsible; this is called ‘vicarious liability’ … He is not supposed to leave his notepad lying around. He is supposed to keep it under lock and key,” said Singh.

Dr Buyiswa Mjamba-Matshoba, HPCSA registrar and CEO, said they receive many complaints about the issuing of medical certificates.

“The council has seen an increase in the number of cases reported relating to practitioners issuing medical certificates in exchange for money. This is a serious concern,” she said.

BERNARDO Luis of Justicia Investigations in Durban said they had been investigated doctors on the South Coast, Isipingo and Durban station for selling sick notes.

“We have clients coming, complaining about the doctors. In some cases, [our] investigators come in with sick notes … [In some] cases we know who the offending doctors are, so we no longer take any sick notes from them.”

Another Durban private investigator, Brad Nathanson, said he has not had a case for the last six years involving doctors. “Six years ago we did an expose of the doctors in the Pinetown area where it was rife … I’m sure it is still rife.”

Melanie Veness of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business said the allegations against the doctor’s office were shocking and needed to be dealt with.

Dr Penny Abbott, head of HR research at the South Africa Board for People Practices, a human resource organisation, said it was not only employers who suffered because of fraudulent sick leave.

“The more sick leave one uses up fraudulently, the less is available for genuine sickness, and if none is left, then the employer is within its rights to stop paying the employee. It is very unwise to use up sick leave [which is a form of insurance] unnecessarily.”

She said employers can pursue the employees for misconduct and dismiss them.

It was also very expensive for employers when employees took unscheduled time off work, she said. And employers can demand an employee visit their own doctor for a second opinion.

“They [employers] must be very consistent in discipline around misuse of sick leave; do not be seen to be condoning such behaviour.”

Christo Botes of Business Partners Limited, a specialist risk finance company, said many businesses were struggling under the pressure of employee absenteeism.

Quoting figures released by Statistics SA, he said absenteeism is costing companies more than R12 billion annually.

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