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Cycling GP tries to set example

Three GPs who were widely seen as scapegoats for Harold Shipman's murderous activities were finally officially cleared of charges of serious professional misconduct last week ­ Daile Pepper reports on the toll taken by the GMC's investigation

Puzzle books. Crosswords. Trashy magazines. How to fill a tortuous three days as you wait to hear a verdict that could spell the end of your career.

Sitting in a room in the GMC's Manchester offices Dr Jeremy Dirckze, Dr Alastair MacGillivray and Dr Stephen Farrar were forced to turn to these mundane pursuits as they were given no idea how long they would be left in limbo.

The threat that the Hyde GPs might come to be known for failing to recognise and act on the unusual pattern of deaths when they signed Shipman's cremation forms was hanging over their heads.

And they had been prepared for the worst, by lawyers keen to ensure a guilty finding did not take them totally by surprise.

In the end, a fitness to practise panel reached a verdict the rest of the profession had come to many months before, but not before the long and drawn-out investigation had had some profound effects on the doctors.

The decision was met with relief, not celebration: nobody had won anything and the news simply signalled that this stressful period in their lives could finally be put behind them.

'I just feel the seriousness of the charges against us was probably unjust. I hoped there would have been another way to look at what happened,' says Dr Dirkze. 'It all seemed a little over the top.

'I accepted they had to look into the circumstances of the situation but I feel having charges of serious professional misconduct against the doctors involved was not the way of doing it.'

He is clear in his mind that they were being made scapegoats by the GMC ­ and the impossibility of actually finding anyone to blame for the serial killings.

'It wanted someone to blame,' he says. 'But Shipman was a person who behaved in a way totally foreign to most people and you can't legislate for that.

'You have got to accept a certain element of risk in life ­ there doesn't always have to be somebody to blame.'

Much of the GPs' resentment relates to the fact they had to wait so long for their case to be heard. Two other GPs who had faced similar charges were cleared last December.

'I had hoped that they would see things from a realistic and common-sense point of view,' said Dr Dirkze. 'We had been prepared for every eventuality but I personally didn't feel they had to go to these lengths.

'It's a pity it took them so long to come to the same conclusion as everyone else.'

Continuing with life as normal during the investigation was very difficult for the Hyde doctors, particularly amid the national media scrum.

'It has dented my confidence,' says Dr Dirkze. 'I have tried to block it out of my mind and carry on as normal, but because it has gone on for so long it has been playing on my mind.'

Beyond that, and to their credit, the GPs are reluctant to voice their own anger and inner turmoil, pointing out that the families of Shipman's victims are still grieving.

Dr Dirkze says he was left with an overwhelming feeling of sympathy for Shipman's victims, some of whose families are now his patients.

'I am very reassured by the level of support we have had all the way through,' he says. 'We mustn't forget the victims and their families.'

Dr Farrar puts a brave face on it, saying he has 'been in the business' long enough to be able to deal with this type of struggle, but admitted he was relieved it was all over.

He adds: 'It has been a very long process but at this stage my only feeling is more one of sympathy for the relatives of Shipman's victims.'

The reverberations of the case against the Shipman 'scapegoats' are bound to continue, however. Despite these doctors being cleared there remains a profound nervousness among the profession about whether GPs should still be signing cremation forms.

'Hopefully now we can put these things behind us and move forward,' says Dr Dirkze.

Two years of

torment

July 2003

Shipman Inquiry criticises GPs who countersigned cremation forms for Shipman; GPC brands them scapegoats

September 2003

GMC considers whether to charge six GPs with serious professional misconduct

December 2004

Dr Peter Bennett and Dr Rajesh Patel cleared of charges

July 2005

Dr Dirckze, Dr MacGillivray, Dr Farrar and Dr Susan Booth ­ who was not represented

­ finally cleared

The GMC ruling

'Shipman was an accomplished liar who set out to deceive his patients and colleagues alike, even going so far as to create false records in his patient notes.

'The extent to which he lied was so extraordinary that it could not have been within the contemplation of any of those who dealt with him.'

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