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Fears over introduction of ‘fast-track’ GP fitness to practise hearings

By Ian Quinn

Exclusive: GPs who are called before fitness to practise hearings are to be subjected to a new fast-track process that medical defence experts fear will curtail their ability to defend their members.

The new Office of Health Professionals Adjudicator – which is taking over from the GMC in staging hearings – says it believes GPs’ legal teams are deliberately stringing out proceedings and causing costly delays.

Stephen Shaw, chief executive of the OHPA, said new slimmed-down procedures would dramatically shorten hearings and cut GMC bureaucracy. He said there would be cost savings for the NHS and the potential for reduced GMC fees.

But the Medical Defence Union said it would fight any moves that diluted the ability of GPs to defend themselves.

Under the new arrangements GMC panels will be replaced by a three-person tribunal, similar to those used for solicitors and architects.

Mr Shaw said the legal detail allowed to dominate hearings was completely out of line with other professions: ‘We‘re determined to provide a quicker, more proportionate, less costly system. We need to bring the medical profession in line with other professions. The drawing out of proceedings that goes on at the moment won’t be allowed.’

He said there would be strict rules to clamp down on legal delays, under which he said ‘only the lawyers get rich’.

Mr Shaw denied the process would mean less rigorous assessment of the facts but insisted it could substantially reduce the £85m a year spent by the GMC on the existing adjudication process.

Under the new system, the GMC will still decide which doctors face fitness to practise hearings, with 2009 figures showing a 30% increase, with 100, or 37%, involving GPs. There has also been a surge in the number of doctors being struck off, with 68 erased in 2009 against 42 in 2008.

Mr Shaw said: ‘Speedier proceeding is fairer for doctors because it will not be hanging over them for so long.’

But Mary-Lou Nesbitt, the MDU’s head of external and governmental relations, said: ‘We’re surprised to see the OHPA’s assertion. It’s simply not correct and the GMC’s own published data does not support it. The MDU’s role is to provide a robust defence for our members and we’ll continue to do so, whatever the adjudication process.’

Dr Krishna Korlipara, a GP in Bolton, Lancashire, and a council member of the GMC for 25 years, said it was ‘extremely important’ that GPs were given adequate time to prepare their cases for defense.

‘What is paramount is that justice is done. If they are being fast-tracked, doctors will not have sufficient time to get their case together.’

Dr Krishna Korlipara What is the OHPA?

The Office of Health Professionals Adjudicator takes over all fitness to practise hearings as from April 2011

70 GMC staff will transfer to the body and existing GMC panel members will to begin with make up the new panels

Longer term the plan is for three person panels made up of one legal expert, one medical professional and one lay person

The body promises to strip out huge levels of bureaucracy currently in GMC hearings with strict new limits on the quantify of evidence allowed and hearings costs