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GPs should be free to offer patients 'spiritual support' - and the GMC should butt out

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It is rare that an ethical dilemma sparks such a debate on our website, but the recent story about the GP who was issued a warning by the GMC after offering religious assistance to a patient continues to provoke discussion.

I suspect that the reason why is that the comments on the story reflect a wider debate over the place of Christian religion in our society. But aside from this they also reach deep into the depths of what makes a good family doctor.

Politicians, lawyers and now perhaps the profession's regulators like to think that medicine is all about following the right procedures and ticking the right boxes, but that betrays a real misunderstanding about the GP's role.

You only have to look at the statistics on what patients complain about most on NHS Choices. Is it receiving guidelines on recommended care? The outcomes of treatment? Their quality of life? No, the most frequent complaint is that they do not have adequate access to their GP.

I attended a press conference this week where a patient charter was launched by the RCGP and the Royal College of Nursing. The room was filled with the kind of doctors and nurses I would like to care for me when I meet my end, and the charter was an exemplar of holistic care for the most vulnerable of patients.

When I raised the issue that GPs could face GMC action if they provided the 'emotional and spiritual support' outlined in the charter, there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere in the room.

The cancer tsar Professor Mike Richards bravely answered my question, saying that it was important that patients at the end of their lives should be offered spiritual support from GPs if they wanted it.

'It is of importance to patients, and if it is, then we should be able to meet that need,' he said.

Others made the same point, and it reinforced for me the importance of the intangible support that GPs give their patients, particularly at the end of their lives, often merely by listening, advising and supporting.

Like it or not, the alchemy of this relationship is a fundamental part of what makes general practice special - and the GMC would be wise to leave well alone.


Nigel Praities is Pulse's deputy editor

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