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Responsible officers plan 'completely unachievable', warns MPS

By Mark Pownall

The latest details of how ‘responsible officers' will be recruited to regulate GPs' fitness to practice have been damned as unachievable and unlikely to improve standards by the Medical Protection Society.

Consultation documents published by the Department of Health last week outlined further details of the role and regulation of responsible officers, who will have the power to refer doctors who fall short of fitness to practise standards to the GMC.

Responsible officers – most likely to be current medical directors of primary care organisations – will have responsibility for making sure GPs comply with ‘the relevant professional standards', the documents state, including evaluating fitness to practise, GP appraisal and revalidation.

They will also handle complaints about the conduct and performance of individual GPs, and the new consultation is seeking opinions on whether extra safeguards are needed to prevent GPs being disadvantaged by responsible officers' conflicts of interest. The DH is also consulting on how doctors' fitness to practise should be evaluated.

But Dr Stephanie Bown, director of policy at the Medical Protection Society, branded the responsible officer plans ‘completely unachievable' and said they would not improve the current standards of medical regulation.

She said the demands of the role outlined in the proposals required ‘somebody of quite exceptional skills and competences, and a breadth of management experience which you don't come across universally among medical directors'.

She told Pulse: ‘The proposed requirements for the post are great things to aspire to, but over ambitious.'

‘We would need to find more than 600 of these paragons, and it is not clear if there are the resources to attract senior doctors in clinical practice to these onerous and challenging roles.'

Dr Bown also said the references in the consultation documents to ‘existing mediation services' was evidence of the DH's failure to provide adequate resources. ‘This simply does not address the importance of dealing with conflict. Mediation is just not consistently available as suggested.'

Dr Brian Keighley, newly elected chair of the BMA in Scotland and chair of the BMA's working party on the GMC, said the proposals were not intended to be introduced until 2011, and given the complexity of the questions raised in the consultation there was likely to be some slippage.

But he agreed there was a lack of clarity in the proposals about resources, saying: ‘If they want something better than appraisal, the resources will have to be there, or it won't happen.'

The DH plans for responsible officers have been branded 'completely unachievable' by critics The DH plans for responsible officers have been branded 'completely unachievable' by critics Roles and responsibilities of responsible officers

• Ensuring there are robust systems of appraisal in place to indentify poor or deteriorating clinical and performance and/or conduct
• Taking appropriate action to avoid potential harm to patients
• Collecting and holding information that informs the evaluation of fitness to practise
• Taking appropriate action to remedy identified areas of weakness
• Referral to GMC where appropriate
• Supervising suspensions and practice restrictions imposed by the GMC

Source: A consultation on responsible officer regulations and guidance, Department of Health, August 2009

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