Practices used for recommending sickness certification by general practitioners: a conversation analytic study of UK primary care consultations

Hannah C Wheat, Rebecca K Barnes, Richard Byng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)


Existing research indicates that many patients and doctors find the process of negotiating sickness certification for time off work to be a difficult one. This study examined how patients and general practitioners (GPs) managed these negotiations in a sample of UK primary care consultations. The study made use of an existing dataset of audio-recorded consultations between 13 GPs and 506 unselected adult patients in five general practices in London. Forty-nine consultations included discussions for both initial and repeat sickness certification across a wide range of conditions. Here we report our findings on doctor practices for recommending, as opposed to patient practices for advocating for, sickness certification (n = 26 cases). All cases were transcribed in detail and analysed using conversation analytic methods. Four main communication practices were observed: (1) declarative statements of need for sickness certification; (2) 'do you need' offers for sickness certification; (3) 'do you want' offers for sickness certification; and (4) conditional 'If X, Y' offers for sickness certification. These different communication practices indexed doctor agency, doctor endorsement and patient entitlement to varying degrees. In the main, recommendations to patients presenting with biomedical problems or a repeat occurrence of a psychosocial problem displayed stronger doctor endorsement and patient entitlement. Contrastingly, recommendations to patients presenting with new psychosocial and biopsychosocial problems, displayed weaker endorsement and patient entitlement. This study offers new evidence to support the Parsonian argument that becoming sick involves entering a social role with special rights and obligations. Through documenting doctors' orientations to their gatekeeping role as well as patients' orientations to differential rights vis à vis legitimacy, we demonstrate the contrasting stances of doctors in situ when giving sick notes for biomedical problems as opposed to difficulties of a more psychosocial nature.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)48-58
Number of pages11
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2015

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2014 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.. All rights reserved.


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