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GMC should offer doctors more support when patients die, says MDU

The Medical Defence Union (MDU) has said doctors, including GPs, should be given more support following the unexpected death of a patient.

In its evidence submitted to the GMC’s review of gross negligence manslaughter (GNM), the MDU said ‘there is little acknowledgement…of the distressing effect such deaths can have on clinicians’.

The defence union added: ‘While an unexpected death and all that an investigation for GNM entails are daunting enough, it is important to remember that doctors are, unusually, subject to multiple jeopardy.’

It added: ‘While they have the support of the MDU throughout, there is very little else available to them.’

Dr Oliver Lord, MDU medico-legal adviser, said: ‘In the MDU’s experience, some trusts and primary care organisations are supportive of doctors involved in unexpected deaths, either because there is a clear trust policy or because the doctors are fortunate to have a clinical director or colleagues who understand and are supportive.’

But he said: ‘Unfortunately this is not the norm and our members often report that they feel those in authority seem to close ranks and often thrust the doctor into the spotlight unaided.’

The review, which is being led by Dame Clare Marx and advised by former RCGP chair Professor Clare Gerada, is investigating why there are fewer cases involving healthcare organisations compared with individuals.

It will also look at whether enough consideration is given to ‘system pressures, errors or failures’ surrounding the doctor at the time of the patient’s death.

The MDU responded that ‘too frequently’ the clinician is the focus of the investigation, ‘rather than … looking into other factors such as the systems and procedures in place at that time’. 

The defence organisation also concluded that there is a ‘concerning lack of understanding of the seriousness of gross negligence manslaughter among those who refer cases to the police’.

It said: ‘Gross negligence manslaughter should only be prosecuted in cases that are the medical equivalent of a person knowingly driving down the motorway on the wrong side against oncoming traffic.’ 

The review was announced following the case of Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba, who was struck off the medical register after the GMC appealed against its own tribunal’s ruling that she could continue to practise despite a court conviction for gross negligence manslaughter.

Dr Bawa-Garba’s appeal case has been heard by the Court of Appeal this week, with judges now considering whether to reinstate the doctor.