Background Medical certificates influence the distribution of economic benefits in welfare states; however, the qualitative aspects of these texts remain largely unexplored. The present study is the first systematic investigation done of these texts. Our aim was to investigate how GPs select and mediate information about their patients’ health and how they support their conclusions about illness, functioning and fitness for work in medical certificates. Methods We performed a textual analysis of thirty-three medical certificates produced by general practitioners (GP) in Norway at the request of the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV).The certificates were subjected to critical reading using the combined analytic methods of narratology and linguistics. Results Some of the medical information was unclear, ambiguous, and possibly misleading. Evaluations of functioning related to illness were scarce or absent, regardless of diagnosis, and, hence, the basis of working incapacity was unclear. Voices in the text frequently conflated, obscuring the source of speaker. In some documents, the expert’s subtle use of language implied doubts about the claimant’s credibility, but explicit advocacy also occurred. GPs show little insight into their patients’ working lives, but rather than express uncertainty and incompetence, they may resort to making too absolute and too general statements about patients’ working capacity, and fail to report thorough assessments. Conclusions A number of the texts in our material may not function as sufficient or reliable sources for making decisions regarding social benefits. Certificates as these may be deficient for several reasons, and textual incompetence may be one of them. Physicians in Norway receive no systematic training in professional writing. High-quality medical certificates, we believe, might be economical in the long term: it might increase the efficiency with which NAV processes cases and save costs by eliminating the need for unnecessary and expensive specialist reports. Moreover, correct and coherent medical certificates can strengthen legal protection for claimants. Eventually, reducing advocacy in these documents may contribute to a fairer evaluation of whether claimants are eligible for disability benefits or not. Therefore, we believe that professional writing skills should be validated as an important part of medical practice and should be integrated in medical schools and in further education as a discipline in its own right, preferably involving humanities professors.
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