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A curious case of vanishing sick notes

‘I’m just here for a quickie, doctor!’ said my next patient.

‘Not while I still have my strength,’ I thought, but it was a different type of quickie she was after.

‘It’s the benefits agency. They’ve lost my sick note. Third time! I’m just after a replacement and then I’ll let you get on.’

Resignedly, I pressed the button, and out came the duplicate. As she was leaving, she said: ‘Makes you wonder what they do with them all, doesn’t it?’

And she had a point.

We all like a quick consultation, but this particular one is starting to get on my nerves. I must see three people a week for lost sick notes and I’m sure we’re all the same in this. There must be thousands of appointments wasted on this every week. Millions must be being squandered. We deal with many more by phone (as this one should have been, but we don’t ask patients why they want appoint- ments, so some will always turn up in person).

It’s not an arduous task, now that we’ve got that function on the computer that prints them out, filled in and ready for signing, but it’s a waste of time, an irritant, a sponge on our receptionists’ energies. More than anything else, I dislike having to use my attention to rectify the errors of others.

Sometimes it’s the patient who is careless, which is surprising, given the benefits (literally) of taking moderate care of what is in effect a legal document. One bloke sticks in the mind: ‘I put it in a postbox, doctor.’

‘What, you posted it to the wrong place?’

‘In a manner of speaking. I was standing by a postbox and I just sort of put it in. It wasn’t in an envelope or anything.’ Enquiries as to why he performed such an imbecilic action were met with a shrug. And another slot was pissed up the wall.

But mainly it’s the benefits people. What’s striking about the lost Med 3 phenomenon is that they are never, ever found again. No patient in history has ever received a phone call saying: ‘Panic over! Don’t worry, we found it, it was in the coffee room.’ They just disappear. And this is, if you think about it, a cause for concern. There’s a lot of confidential information on a Med 3, the sort of information that you would be very concerned about if you thought it was in a skip somewhere, yet no one seems to be worried.

If all the lost Med 3s were collected in one place, they’d fill a cavernous space by now, a vast chamber full of potential breaches of confidentiality, an ocean of unprocessed and ignored paperwork. And I have a theory about what actually happens to all this stuff, this product of our work and professional judgment.

It’s Friday down at the Department for Work and Pensions; 2pm is approaching and it’s nearly wine o’clock for our civil service colleagues. Dave has checked Facebook for the final time and had his last game of Candy Crush of the week, but what’s this? There’s still a pile of paperwork on the desk! Loads and loads of sick notes!

‘Give us a hand, Bob,’ says Dave, as he scoops up an armful and heads purposefully towards the office shredder. ‘I need to clear my desk.’

Dr Phil Peverley is a GP in Sunderland