A physician's assessment and signature on a third-party form have a value that reflects the physician's formal education and training as well as his/her professional experience. Similar to the signatures of other professionals, a physician's signature carries certain responsibilities and a commitment that the information provided is accurate and based on objective data and the patient's medical history. This value needs to be formally recognized and appropriately used. Most third parties have historically relied on the goodwill of physicians to complete their forms free of charge. However, the steady rise of third-party form requests (see Appendix A) and the cumulative time that form completion takes away from direct patient care necessitates a more reasonable approach to form requests and fair remuneration for the physicians' time and expertise.
SCOPE OF POLICY
This document provides guidance for physicians, patients and organizations that request third-party forms1 subject to federal/provincial/territorial legislation and regulations. Several strategies aimed at reducing the administrative burden of third-party forms are recommended to allow more time for direct patient care.2
The physician's role
* The physician has a well-defined and limited role in form completion - to only provide objective information on physical and/or psychological impairments and abilities, limitations and restrictions, time frames and prognosis from the medical record directly required by the third party for the purpose of administering particular programs or benefits. Questions on forms directed to physicians should be restricted to seeking such information.
* A physician has a duty to ensure that he/she has properly completed the form (i.e., he/she has filled out the form completely, accurately and objectively in accordance with the requirements of the physician's provincial or territorial regulatory college).
* When asked to provide an opinion on functional abilities to employers or insurers, the focus should be on abilities; information on restrictions should be objective and specific, and restrictions should be listed only when absolutely medically indicated.3
* A physician must not state that a patient has been under his/her care unless that is the case. The duration of the care should be indicated. If a physician does not have sufficient knowledge of an illness to provide information or an opinion upon it, the physician should state this on the certificate. The certification of absence should be based only on patient history if the patient was seen after the illness and should be clearly documented as "patient reports." In instances where a physician is being requested to complete a form by a transient patient (i.e., not the physician's patient), the physician should only comment on observations based on their own medical assessment.
* A physician must have a patient's consent to disclose information to any third party, such as the patient's employer or insurer. Unless prevented by law, the physician should ensure the patient is aware that the report he/she provides to the third party is outside the physician-patient relationship and that in completing the form, the physician has a professional obligation to accurately and objectively report upon the patient's condition. A physician must not disclose more information than is covered by the patient's consent - this includes only providing information relevant to the nature of the request and that is reasonably necessary. If a patient limits his/her consent, the physician must consider whether such limitation is relevant to his/her report and if it is, report the limitation to the third party.
* An accurate and relevant narrative summary of a patient's clinical files by the physician should be sufficient information for third parties. The requesting of complete copies of clinical files is unwarranted in the significant majority of cases unless mandated by legislation.
* Physicians should consult with the Canadian Medical Protective Association and their provincial regulatory college for guidance and clarification on third-party form requests (see Appendix B).
The patient's role
* To the greatest extent possible, patients should review the third-party form and be aware of the information being requested.
* Most forms request information on patients' subjective complaints and self-reported function. In such instances, it would be more appropriate to have this information reported directly by the patient to the requesting party.
* Patients must be aware of the following:
o Receipt of their consent authorizes the attending physician to accurately, completely and objectively explain the patient's medical condition as part of the physician's professional responsibility.
o Physicians have a professional and ethical obligation to only document that which is true and medically defensible. The physician does not act as the decision-maker for absences or claims adjudication.
o In some instances (e.g., fitness to drive), physicians also have legislated requirements to complete third-party forms regarding their patient.
The role of the third party
* Third parties should only request medical forms when there is a need for medical information about a patient (i.e., information that could not be provided by a non-physician) to be used for employment/education purposes or the evaluation of a medically related benefit for the patient.
o It is the role of the third party to adjudicate on a patient's eligibility for a benefit, not the physician.
o A request for a patient's non-medical information (i.e., unrelated to the patient's medical condition/history) or a request to certify identity (e.g., asking a physician to certify the principal parent for the purpose of determining eligibility to receive child benefits) is an inappropriate use of medical resources and it is at the discretion of the physician whether to comply with such requests.
o Requests for updates should be reasonable and respect the physician's prognosis.
o Wherever possible, third-party forms should be standardized (e.g., program eligibility, tombstone data, wording of questions) to save time and reduce administrative errors.
o Program eligibility should be made clear to patients and providers to reduce inappropriate form requests (e.g., educating tax advisors on government program eligibility to prevent inappropriate requests for the disability tax credit).
* To make the process of completing a medical form effective and efficient, third parties must involve and inform physicians early and on an ongoing basis, beginning by asking physicians to help to determine whether there is a need for a medical form to be completed in the first place. Medical input is also necessary in the design of the form and to determine how often the form needs to be completed. Physicians should be involved in periodic reviews of existing medical forms with third parties (e.g., governments, insurance companies, associations) for several reasons: to determine whether the forms remain relevant and as a simple as possible; to determine appropriate remuneration for completing the forms; and to ensure that physicians are notified of any changes to requests for medical certification in writing rather than having changes communicated to the physician informally through the patient.4
* In some cases, other health professionals (e.g., occupational therapists) are in a better position to objectively assess patients' abilities and could be designated as qualified practitioners for the purpose of completing the forms, with physicians providing information pertaining to medical assessments and prognoses.
* Confirmation of a short-term absence from work because of minor illness is a matter to be addressed between an employer and an employee directly. Such an absence does not require physician confirmation of illness and represents an inefficient use of scarce health care resources. It is the employer's responsibility -not the physician's - to oversee employee absenteeism. It may be that for many cases, the need for a medical certificate can be replaced by a more effective alternative that does not involve physicians and is agreed to by all parties concerned (e.g., employer and employees).
* If an employer, educational institution or other third party requests an illness confirmation certificate for a short-term, minor illness that would otherwise not have required medical attention, said party should recognize that completion of the certificate is an uninsured service for which physicians are entitled to compensation, preferably from the third party requesting the information, rather than burdening the patient.
* The third party requesting the information should be responsible for compensating the physician for their medical information and expertise. At a provincial/territorial government level, this could mean making the completion of provincial/territorial forms an insured service under the provincial/territorial health insurance plan.
* Physician reimbursement should cover the time and resources devoted to the provision of medical information to third parties (submitted in writing, electronically and/or by phone). This includes compensation for any uninsured medical assessment necessary to complete the form, for the provision of copies of medical information, and for the time and resources needed to respond to any follow-up requests. Wherever possible, the compensation rates should be consistent and should reflect the time and effort necessary to complete the form(s).
* Physicians should be compensated for completing forms related to return to work by provincial/territorial worker's compensation plans; they should be compensated for completing return-to-work forms for non-occupational conditions by provincial/territorial insurance plans, given the important health implications of return-to-work management.
* In the absence of third-party compensation, physicians may charge the patient for the service they provide. As stated in the CMA's Code of Ethics, physicians should consider the nature of the service provided and the ability of the patient to pay, and they should be prepared to discuss the fee with the patient.5 Patient decisions about payment for uninsured services must not negatively affect the physician-patient relationship or pose a barrier to accessing health care services. The physician may decide to reduce or waive his/her fees if the patient lacks the financial ability to pay. Physicians should consult their provincial/territorial medical association for guidance regarding direct billing of patients.
The increasing administrative burden
Physicians face a multitude of requests on a daily basis to complete medical forms and certificates. Requests come from many sources, including governments, government agencies (e.g., workers' compensation boards) and the private/non-governmental sectors (e.g., employers, insurance companies, schools, sporting organizations).
In a 2016 survey of CMA physician members on third-party forms, physicians identified sick notes as the form that they were most frequently asked to complete (67.0% of respondents reported having to fill this form out more than five times per week). Short-term disability claim forms were the second most frequently requested form, with 42.3% of respondents reporting completing this form more than five times per week. Medical certificates for sickness benefit claims under the federal government's employment insurance program - just one example of a third-party form requiring medical input - had to be completed for 336,800 approved applications in 2013-20146 (the vast majority of these certificates would have been completed by physicians).
Physicians continue to devote considerable time to completing forms. Government disability forms, just one type of third-party form, require considerable amount of time to complete. Over 62% of the physicians in the 2016 survey indicated they spend 21-30 minutes (31% of respondents) or more than 30 minutes (31% of respondents) to complete the Canada Pension Plan disability form. Similarly, 60% indicated they spend 21-30 minutes (33% of respondents) or more than 30 minutes (27% of respondents) to complete the Veterans' Affairs disability benefit form.
The most frequently identified concern that physicians have with completing third-party forms (75% of those who participated in the 2016 survey) was the time it took from direct patient care. The second most frequently identified concern (63.4%) was the number of inappropriate requests from third parties.7
Increasing administrative workload/paperwork has been identified by physicians as one of the biggest contributors increasing the demand for their time at work. 8 In many cases, these requests can be an inappropriate use of a physician's time, such as requests for patient information for administrative purposes. Responding to such requests reduces both timely access to care and the time available for direct patient care.
Policies in the office to better manage third-party form requests
Office policies and strategies can be instituted by physicians to better manage third-party requests. These strategies include:
* having an office policy or standardized method to manage third-party form requests;
* having clear communication and posted signage on patient and physician responsibilities regarding forms and fees;
* using a standard form template (e.g., for sick notes)9; and
* organizing time to complete forms.
Physicians are also encouraged to consult with their provincial/territorial medical association and their regulatory college for guidance related to form requests.
These strategies can be part of an overall effort by organizations to raise the awareness of employers, governments and other third parties of the need for a more appropriate approach to form requests to eliminate time wasted for all parties and reduce the inappropriate use of health care resources.
1 The term third-party form refers to any form, letter, medical certificate, mandatory reporting form, photocopy or other document containing medical information about the patient that a physician has been requested to complete or provide by a third party on behalf of their patient. The term third party refers to an employer, government department or agency, private insurer or other organization that is requesting medical information about the patient with the intention of using it.
2 This policy should be considered in conjunction with CMA's policy statement entitled The Treating Physician's Role in Helping Patients Return to Work after an Illness or Injury.
3 Choosing Wisely Canada. Occupational Medicine Specialists of Canada. Five things physicians and patients should question; 2014 Oct 29. Available: www.choosingwiselycanada.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Occupational-Medicine.pdf
4 Saskatchewan Medical Association. SMA relative value guide. Saskatoon: The Association; 2004.
5 Canadian Medical Association. Code of Ethics. Ottawa: The Association; 2004.
6 This figure does not include the number of forms completed for individuals who applied but did not qualify for the program. Canada Employment Insurance Commission. Employment insurance monitoring and assessment report 2013/14. Ottawa: Employment and Social Development Canada. Available: www.esdc.gc.ca/en/reports/ei/monitoring2014/chapter2_4.page
7 Canadian Medical Association. e-Panel survey summary: third-party forms. Ottawa: The Association; 2017.
8 Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. National physician survey 2013. Results by FP/GP or other specialist, sex, age and all physicians [table]. Ottawa: The College; 2013. Available: http://nationalphysiciansurvey.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/2013-National-EN-Q13r.pdf
9 Steven Harrison. OMA sickness certificate template: a practical office resource. Ontario Medical Review 2004 Dec.
GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR PHYSICIANS RECOMMENDING MOBILE HEALTH APPLICATIONS TO PATIENTS
This document is designed to provide basic information for physicians about how to assess a mobile health application for recommendation to a patient in the management of that patient's health, health care, and health care information.
These guiding principles build on the Canadian Medical Association's (CMA) Physician Guidelines for Online Communication with Patients.1
* Mobile health applications, distinct from regulated medical devices, may be defined as an application on a mobile device that is intended for use in the diagnosis of disease or other conditions, or in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease. The functions of these applications may include:
o The ability to store and track information about an individual or group's health or the social determinants thereof;
o Periodic educational information, reminders, or motivational guidance;
o GPS location information to direct or alert patients;
o Standardized checklists or questionnaires.2
* Mobile health applications can enhance health outcomes while mitigating health care costs because of their potential to improve a patient's access to information and care providers.3
* Mobile health applications are most commonly used on a smart phone and/or tablet. Some may also interface with medical devices.
* The use of mobile health applications reflects an emerging trend towards personalized medicine and patient involvement in the management of their health information. By 2016, 142 million health apps will have been downloaded.4 According to some industry estimates, by 2018, 50 percent of the more than 3.4 billion smartphone and tablet users worldwide will have downloaded at least one mobile health application.5
* While mobile health application downloads are increasing, there is little information about usage and adherence by patients. It is believed that many patients cease to use a mobile health application soon after downloading it.
* Distributers of mobile health applications do not currently assess content provided by mobile health applications for accuracy, comprehensiveness, reliability, timeliness, or conformity to clinical practice guidelines.6 However, mobile applications may be subjected to certain standards to ensure critical technical requirements such as accessibility, reachability, adaptability, operational reliability, and universality.
* Increasingly there are independent websites providing reviews of medical apps and checklists for health care professionals. However, the quality criteria used by these sites, potential conflicts of interest, and the scope and number of mobile apps assessed are not always declared by these groups.
To date, randomized controlled trials are not usually employed to assess the effectiveness of mobile health applications. Some believe that the rigorousness of this type of assessment may impede the timeliness of a mobile health application's availability.7
* Some examples of the uses of mobile health applications include tracking fitness activities to supplement a healthy lifestyle; supported self-management of health and health information; post-procedure follow up; viewing of test results; and the virtualization of interaction between patients and providers, such as remote patient monitoring for chronic disease management. Some mobile health applications may be linked to a patient profile or patient portal associated with a professional or recognized association or medical society or health care organization.
* Some mobile health applications may be an extension of an electronic medical records (EMR) platform.
* The objective of recommending a mobile health application to a patient must be to enhance the safety and/or effectiveness of patient care or otherwise for the purpose of health promotion.
* A mobile health application is one approach in health service delivery. Mobile health applications should complement, rather than replace, the relationship between a physician and patient.
* No one mobile health application is appropriate for every patient. Physicians may wish to understand a patient's abilities, comfort level, access to technology, and the context of the application of care before recommending a mobile health application.
* Should a physician recommend a mobile health application to a patient, it is the responsibility of the physician to do so in a way that adheres to legislation and regulation (if existing) and/or professional obligations.
* If the mobile health application will be used to monitor the patient's condition in an ongoing manner, the physician may wish to discuss with the patient what they should watch for and the steps they should take in response to information provided.
* Physicians are encouraged to share information about applications they have found effective with colleagues.
* Physicians who require additional information about the competencies associated with eHealth and the use of health information technologies may wish to consult The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada's (RCPSC) framework of medical competencies, CanMEDS.8
* Physicians may wish to enter into and document a consent discussion with their patient, which can include the electronic management of health information or information printed out from electronic management platforms like mobile health applications. This agreement may include a one-time conveyance of information and recommendations to cover the elements common to many mobile health applications, such as the general risk to privacy associated with storing health information on a mobile device.
Characteristics of a safe and effective mobile health application
A mobile health application does not need to have all of the following characteristics to be safe and effective. However, the more of the following characteristics a mobile health application has, the likelier it will be appropriate for recommendation to a patient:
1. Endorsement by a professional or recognized association or medical society or health care organization
As recommended by the Canadian Medical Protective Association (CMPA), it is best to select mobile health applications that have been created or endorsed by a professional or recognized association or medical society.9 Some health care organizations, such as hospitals, may also develop or endorse applications for use in their clinical environments. There may also be mobile health applications associated with an EMR platform used by an organization or practice. Finally, some mobile health applications may have been subject to a peer review process distinct from endorsement by an association or organization.
There are a number of usability factors than can complicate the use of mobile applications, including interface and design deficiencies, technological restrictions, and device and infrastructure malfunction.
Many developers will release periodic updates and software patches to enhance the stability and usability of their applications. Therefore, it would be prudent for the physician recommending the mobile health application to also recommend to the patient that they determine if the application has been updated within the last year.
Physicians considering recommending a mobile health application to a patient may wish to ask about the patient's level of comfort with mobile health technologies, their degree of computer literacy, whether or not the patient owns a mobile device capable of running the application, and whether or not the patient is able to bear potential one-time or ongoing costs associated with use of the application.
Physicians may consider testing the application themselves beforehand to understand whether its functionality and interface make it easy to use.
3. Reliability of information
Physicians considering recommending a mobile health application may wish to understand how the patient intends to use the information, and/or review the information with the patient to understand whether it is current and appropriate.
Information presented by the mobile health application should be appropriately referenced and time-stamped with the last update by the application developer.
4. Privacy and security
In 2014, the Officer of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta assessed approximately 1200 mobile applications and found nearly one-third of them required access to personal information beyond what should be required relative to their functionality and purpose, and that basic privacy information was not always made available.10
Physicians entering into and documenting a consent discussion with their patients may wish to include the electronic management of health information in the scope of these discussions, and make a notation of the discussion in the patient's health record.
Some mobile health applications may feature additional levels of authentication for use, such as an additional password or encryption protocols. If all other factors between applications are equal, physicians may wish to recommend that patients use mobile health applications adhering to this higher standard of security.
5. Avoids conflict-of-interest
Physicians may wish to recommend that patients learn more about the company or organization responsible for the development of the application and their mandate. There is a risk of secondary gains by mobile health application developers and providers where information about patients and/or usage is gathered and sold to third parties.
A standardized conflict of interest statement may be made available through the mobile health application or on the developer's website. If so, physicians may wish to refer the patient to this resource.
Physicians who develop mobile applications for commercial gain or have a stake in those who develop applications for commercial gain may risk a complaint being made to the College on the basis that the physician engaged in unprofessional conduct if they recommend mobile health applications to their patients in the course of patient care.
6. Does not contribute to fragmentation of health information
Some mobile health applications may link directly to an EMR, patient portal, or government data repository. These data resources may be standardized, linked, and cross-referenced.
However, health information entered into an application may also be stored on a mobile device and/or the patient's home computer, or developers of mobile health applications may store information collected by their application separately. While there may be short-term benefits to using a particular mobile health application, the range of applications and developers may contribute to the overall fragmentation of health information.
If all other factors between applications are considered equal, physicians may wish to recommend mobile health applications which contribute to robust existing data repositories, especially an existing EMR.
7. Demonstrates its impact on patient health outcomes
While not all mobile health applications will have an appropriate scale of use and not all developers will have the capacity to collect and analyze data, physicians may wish to recommend mobile health applications that have undergone validation testing to demonstrate impact of use on patient health outcomes. If mobile health applications are claiming a direct therapeutic impact on patient populations, physicians may wish to recommend that their patients seek out or request resources to validate this claim.
1 Canadian Medical Association. Physician guidelines for online communication with patients. Ottawa: The Association; 2005. Available: http://policybase.cma.ca/dbtw-wpd/PolicyPDF/PD05-03.pdf?_ga=1.32127742.1313872127.1393248073
2 US Food and Drug Administration, Center for Devices and Radiological Health, Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. Mobile medical applications: guidance for industry and Food and Drug Administration staff. Rockville (MD): The Administration; 2015. Available:
3 Canada Health Infoway. Mobile health computing between clinicians and patients. White paper. Toronto: The Infoway; 2014 Apr. Available: www.infoway-inforoute.ca/index.php/resources/video-gallery/doc_download/2081-mobile-health-computing-between-clinicians-and-patients-white-paper-full-report
4 iHealthBeat. 44M mobile health apps will be downloaded in 2012, report predicts. Available: www.ihealthbeat.org/articles/2011/12/1/44m-mobile-health-apps-will-be-downloaded-in-2012-report-predicts
5 Jahns R-G. 500m people will be using healthcare mobile applications in 2015. Research2guidance. Available: www.research2guidance.com/500m-people-will -be-using-healthcare-mobile-applications-in-2015/
6 Lyver, M. Standards: a call to action. Future Practice. 2013 Nov. Available: www.cma.ca/Assets/assets-library/document/en/about-us/FP-November2013-e.pdf
7 Rich P. Medical apps: current status. Future Practice 2013 Nov. Available: www.cma.ca/Assets/assets-library/document/en/about-us/FP-November2013-e.pdf
8 Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. The CanMEDS 2015 eHealth Expert Working Group report. Ottawa: The College; 2014. Available: www.royalcollege.ca/portal/page/portal/rc/common/documents/canmeds/framework/ehealth_ewg_report_e.pdf
9 Canadian Medical Protective Association. Managing information to delivery safer care. Ottawa: The Association; 2013. Available: https://oplfrpd5.cmpa-acpm.ca/en/duties-and-responsibilities/-/asset_publisher/bFaUiyQG069N/content/managing-information-to-deliver-safer-care
10 Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta. Global privacy sweep rasies concerns about mobile apps [news release]. Available: www.oipc.ab.ca/downloads/documentloader.ashx?id=3482