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Let's not scapegoat the GMC

Julie Norris

From Julie Norris, a partner at law firm Kingsley Napley LLP specialising in regulatory issues for healthcare professionals

Reading the tragic news that a newly qualified GP voted ’Trainee GP of the Year’ hanged himself after fearing he would be struck off by the GMC for failing an alcohol test, it is all too easy to react to the headlines.

Whilst this case, of course, raises important questions as to the role that the GMC should play in safeguarding doctors subject to investigation, it must be recognised that the GMC can only do so much to protect doctors who find themselves in similar positions to Dr Halcrow.

The GMC regulates over 230,000 doctors. In 2014, it reviewed over 9,000 concerns raised about doctors, conducted 2,763 investigations and oversaw 219 hearings before the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service - that is quite a caseload.

I am not usually the first to defend the regulator’s actions. However on this occasion I believe magnanimity is required.

We know that Dr Halcrow is not the first doctor to have found the pressure too much. Between 2005 and 2013, 28 doctors apparently committed suicide during their GMC investigation. That is clearly 28 doctors too many. What these ‘startling’ statistics do not show, however, is that over 70% of these individuals were being investigated over health concerns. Perhaps they were suffering the stress of their job, perhaps there were other issues. We cannot, however, eliminate the presence of, or a susceptibility to, mental health problems.

Also obscured is the fact that many doctors investigated by the GMC are the subject of ‘multiple jeopardy’, that is being involved in a number of investigations at once. It quickly becomes quite difficult to tell what the real reasons are for the 28 doctors having made such a drastic decision as to take their own life, and therefore it would be wrong simply to blame the GMC knee-jerk style.

The loss of such a talented doctor, son and friend as Dr Halcrow is sad beyond measure. Let us not scapegoat the GMC though. It was right his alcohol consumption should be of concern to them: alcohol misuse that may affect a doctor’s ability to deal safely with his patient’s falls squarely into the arena of the GMC’s duty to protect the public. We would be scornful if harm were caused to a patient due to the inactivity of the GMC.

As a solicitor who regularly advises doctors in the eye of a GMC investigation, I am not usually the first to defend the regulator’s actions. However on this occasion I believe magnanimity is required. To be fair to the GMC, this time last year it commissioned research into the emotional impact of proceedings on doctors and it is now taking steps to reduce the numbers of suicides through the implementation of the eight recommendations in that report. These steps clearly cannot come soon enough. Yet whilst the GMC has a big part to play, so too does that team that looks after the doctor under investigation. The lawyers, the medical defence organisation, friends and family must all rally and support doctors who are the subject of GMC proceedings. Even for the most robust of doctors, these can be stressful and isolating times.

RIP Dr Halcrow. However to those who have cried shame on the GMC, things are often actually more complex than that.

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Readers' comments (17)

  • I am sorry that you feel the need to be an apologist for the GMC
    I am a GMC 'survivor' having unsuccessfully attempted suicide due to the abusive process that the GMC puts you and your family and colleagues through during their 'process'.
    I made a mistake which I owned up to, but the two year process led me to a complete breakdown (and I ended up needing 3 months off work sick due to my resulting mental health).

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  • Sorry Julie. Totally disagree with your opinion piece. Under the constant pretext of patient safety the GMC can do what it likes to restrict, drag out cases for years a time, causing so much grief, anxiety that for most doctors its too much. A colleague asked me what my career aims where, I replied "to pay off mortgage before I get struck off by the GMC" (I have never been in trouble withe the GMC in 20 years, but the constant worry is unnerving that something will happen). Thankfully i've almost achieved my aim, following which any GMC involvement in my affairs will result result in some quite undiplomatic language and no need for expensive lawyers.

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  • The Recommendations are below -

    see 6 -

    Obviously the doctors are to blame! It's not the process, we just are not emotionally resilient enough.

    Recommendations for current GMC practice:
    1 Doctors under investigation should feel they are treated as ‘innocent until proven guilty’
    2 Reduce the number of health examiners’ reports required for health assessments
    3 Appoint a senior medical officer within the GMC to be responsible for overseeing health cases
    4 Introduce case conferencing for all health and performance cases
    5 Set out pre-qualification criteria for referrals from NHS providers and independent employers
    6 Make emotional resilience training an integral part of the medical curriculum
    7 Expose GMC investigation staff to frontline clinical practice
    8 Develop a GMC employee training package to increase staff awareness of mental health issues.

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  • The GMC is the governments puppet. You cannot defend the GMC, period. The suicide rates are the tip of the iceberg.

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  • This comment has been moderated.

  • As you could see Julie nobody agreed with your opinion. Nobody who has been under investigation could say that they have found it fair all the time. The investigators are also accountable for their actions but is all hidden under confidentiality. They should be transparent and the GMC should respond quickly and avoid all the unnecessary stress caused to the doctor. The GMC protects patients by neglecting doctors.

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  • Vinci Ho

    It is exactly what you said about why GMC had to probe into the emotional impact of the proceedings of FTP. Am I right to say:

    'The fundamental argument here is whether the actual procedures and proceedings of FTP investigation are already punitive enough to cast an impression of 'presumed guilty' in all parties involved(including the person being investigated ). That is where betrayal of the spirit of Common Law arises . And it is nothing to do with protecting the public , nor whether emotional resilience training is enough or not.' ??

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  • I can only wish that a similar draconian organisation is created to police the legal profession.
    Of course it won't happen because there are so many MPs with legal qualifications!

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  • Vinci Ho

    In another tone,GMC requires some magnanimity(sorry ,I had to look up the dictionary for this word as my english is not perfect).Then , who will pay magnanimity to our colleagues who have ceased to exist now?

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  • As a dual qualified doctor and lawyer I find Julie Norris’s comments about not scapegoating the GMC astonishingly wide of the mark. The GMC has enormous power, poor procedures and operates on an unchecked philosophy of ‘Presumption of Guilt’. There is no sense of balance or proportion in its negativistic investigations conducted to search out and megaphone all alleged faults in doctors complained to it. The GMC’s investigators appear to be poorly trained, inadequately supervised, show no evidence of continuing professional development and have a near zero understanding of the rules of fair procedure. They are quite incompetent when it comes to testing allegations and making sound judgments on their probative value. They wilfully ignore evidence of accused doctor’s good work and value to patients. The evidence clearly shows that they neither know nor care about the stress, professional and economic damage they do to doctors by prolonged and unjustified investigations. They have no internal audit or checks to prevent junior staff with enormous power persisting in doing damage despite the protestations of the accused doctor and the growing weakness of the alleged case – apparent to everyone but the GMC. In the long run they cause patients to suffer the loss of the services of experienced doctors. And one should not waste one’s breath expecting them to apologise for manifest errors. In short they expect doctors to obey one set of rules whilst they recklessly break each and every one of these rules. If I had to be represented before this statutory juggernaut by a lawyer it would be by one who was a fighter and gave the GMC no quarter. They will give you none and they deserve none in return. Wake up Julie Norris – the GMC are no friends of the medical profession.

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  • Having been the subject of a malicious complaint by my partner's ex, I was mortified. This person was able to go onto the GMC website and find me on the registration list. The first I heard about the complaint was a large brown envelope in my work post. I couldn't complete my surgery without some time out but had to knuckle down.
    That said, when I contacted the GMC and my defence organisation, I found the people I spoke to supportive.
    The process was about 3 months long; the GMC were obliged to investigate the comments.
    It was very stressful and the only thing that kept me sane was knowing that the nature of the complaint was motivated by other factors. However it does leave me concerned that my record is now marked by this.
    It does seem to be very one sided and I can see how doctors could be driven to harm themselves or suffer mental health problems. Like the consumer society we now live in, the service industry has to accept that the consumer is always right, even when wrong, and there is little comeback for the complainants in any sector however much damage they do by their actions.

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