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Acting by persuasion— values and rhetoric in medical certificates of work incapacity: A qualitative document analysis


When the patient applies for disability benefit in Norway, the general practitioner (GP) is required by the National Insurance Administration (NAV) to confirm that the patient is unfit for work due to disease. Considering the important social role of medical certificates, they have been given surprisingly little attention by the medical critique. They may make essential differences to peoples’ lives, legitimise large social costs and, in addition, the GPs report that issuing certificates can be problematic. This article explores values, attitudes and persuasive language in a selection of medical certificates written by GPs. We direct attention to such texts as significant social actors using a mixed rhetoric including certain values and attitudes. When arguing for granting the patient disability benefit, some GPs emphasised the ‘worthiness’ of the patient by pointing to positive attitudes approved by the national insurance: a will to work and participate, to cooperate and be motivated. Others pointed out the patient’s positive character in terms of universally accepted values, called for the reader’s (the NAV official) sympathy , understanding and helpfulness or appealed to his/her willingness to be realistic and pragmatic and grant disability benefit (DB). The dialogic style varied: some certifiers—although they argued for disability benefit—showed openness to possible opposing or alternative voices by displaying their own uncertainty. Others addressed the reader to share responsibility, demanding or urging for DB. This shifting rhetoric, we believe, mirrors that the GPs see themselves as the patient’s advocate, and that they may find themselves conflicted. We propose further studies within qualitative research to investigate the effect of this rhetoric on the reader, the decision-makers. In addition, to improve the quality and accuracy of these important documents, we suggest that medical schools introduce students to the making of text as a specific skill of medical practice.

  • primary care
  • medical humanities

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