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Health secretary ‘deeply concerned’ about implications of GMC court ruling

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has questioned the GMC for taking its own tribunal’s decision to the High Court to be quashed.

Commenting on Twitter, Mr Hunt said he was ‘perplexed’ that the GMC acted as it did, adding that ‘patient safety must be paramount’.

He further told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that doctors need to be able to express themselves freely about mistakes in order to keep patients safe.

Judges ruled in favour of the GMC yesterday and said Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba should be struck off the medical register after the death of a youg boy with sepsis in her care.

Mr Hunt said on Twitter: ‘Wouldn’t be appropriate for me as Govt Minister to criticise a court ruling, but deeply concerned about possibly unintended implications here for learning and reflective practice in e-journals. Am also totally perplexed that GMC acted as they did: patient safety must be  paramount.’

Concerned doctors – over 800 of which signed a letter to GMC before last month’s High Court hearing – have warned that it penalises the doctor for systemic trust failures and criminalises clinical error.

Mr Hunt told the Today programme: ‘I do think we need to consider very carefully what may be some of the unintended consequences of this ruling. In particular, doctors have e-journals, in which they reflect on what they do.

‘We know that in medicine all over the world there is always going to be mistakes made, and for patients to be safe we need doctors to be able to reflect completely openly and freely about what they have done, to learn from mistakes, spread best practice around the system, to talk openly with their colleagues. 

‘And I want to make sure going forward that doctors are able to do that.’

To which he was asked: ‘But as a result of this case, nobody will feel free to do that?’

He responded: ‘Well we have to make absolute sure that isn’t the case, because if we are going to keep patients safe, then we have to make sure that doctors are able to learn from mistakes.’

House of Commons Health Committee chair and former GP Dr Sarah Wollaston also said she was concerned about the ruling, in response to the health secretary’s comments: ‘I agree there are unintended consequences from this case and whilst ministers cannot intervene in judicial process for this case there will need to be a review not only of system pressures but to make sure clinicians can learn from errors rather than fearful of discussing them.’

The Medical Protection Society, which represented Dr Bawa-Garba, said in light of the appeal decision that it ‘may jeopardise an open, learning culture in healthcare at a time when the profession is already marred by low morale and fear’.

They added that they were ‘considering all options in the interests of our member and the wider profession’.

The Medical Practitioner Tribunal Service decided in June last year that erasing trainee paediatrician Dr Bawa-Garba from the register would be ‘disproportionate’ and recommended a 12-month suspension instead.

But the GMC disagreed and told the High Court in December that she should be struck off ‘to protect the public’ after her actions resulted in the death of a six-year-old boy.

Yesterday, Lord Justice Ouseley said: ‘I come firmly to the conclusion that the decision of the Tribunal on sanction was wrong, that the GMC appeal must be allowed, and that this Court must substitute the sanction of erasure for the sanction of suspension.’

Mr Hunt has been outspoken throughout his time as health secretary about creating an NHS culture of learning in light of the Francis Report into the failings at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.


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