As part of the “Third Bureaucracy Relief Act” the German government intends to introduce an electronic submission procedure for medical certificates regarding the incapacity of employees. More than 80 million of such certificates are issued every year by doctors in Germany. Replacing extensive documentation and record-keeping duties will allow medium-sized companies in particular to reduce existing manual processing workloads.

According to current German law an employee must submit a medical certificate of incapacity to the employer at the latest by the fourth day of absence due to illness. In the future, employers will be able to retrieve electronic certificates directly from the employees’ health insurance’s database. Upon receipt, the health insurance provider will send a message to the employer, replacing the employee’s previous duty to submit a copy of the medical certificate to their employer. The new procedure will reduce paperwork and provide legal clarity.

Whilst there are no arguments against an electronic data transfer of certificates issued by examining doctors, there are considerable concerns about certificates based on purely online diagnostic questionnaires without any personal examination. Certain online providers have recently offered this possibility and advertise the option aggressively. However, medical certificates need to remain subject to a high standard of due care considering the significance for the insured employee and the labour, social security and economic implications. Even if online certificates were formally and effectively issued, doubts remain about their evidential value. Medical Chambers and employers’ associations fear the potential for abuse of this easy way to access legally effective medical certificates.

Due to the principle of free choice of doctor, a general prohibition of online certificates by the employer seems questionable. In cases of doubt the discussion will have to be deferred to the labour court – German courts’ historic high legal hurdles to weakening and refuting medical certificates can no longer apply for a certificate given without any personal examination of the patient. In an initial step, employers can point out to their employees the current legal doubts and ask them to submit only conventional certificates.

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