The GMC will introduce ‘emotional resilience’ training and a national support service for doctors after an internal review found that 28 doctors committed suicide while under investigation by the regulator.
The report, Doctors who commit suicide while under GMC fitness to practise investigation, also recommends the appointment of a senior medical officer in charge of overseeing health cases and establishing a culture where doctors feel they are treated as ‘innocent until proven guilty.’
This comes after calls from former RCGP chair Professor Clare Gerada and the BMA among others to publish the findings of the internal review after it was launched in September last year in an effort to see if the GMC can do more to support vulnerable doctors who are undergoing fitness-to-practise investigation.
The internal review identified 114 doctors who had died during 2005-2013 inclusive and had an open and disclosed GMC case at the time of death, and found that 28 had committed suicide.
While it found that the GMC had instigated ‘significant improvements’ to its processes over the past few years, such as using more sensitive language in its letters, it said there was a perception that the GMC focuses on ‘protecting the public’ and that the doctor can become ‘marginalised’ – subsequently receiving little support or compassion.
It said there were a series of recommendations that the GMC could implement to improve processes further, including:
- Making emotional resilience training an integral part of the medical curriculum;
- Exposing GMC investigation staff to frontline clinical practice;
- Supporting the establishment of a National Support Service (NSS) for doctors;
- Reducing the number of health examiners’ reports required for health assessments;
- Introducing case conferencing for all health and performance cases;
- Setting out pre-qualification criteria for referrals from NHS providers and independent employers;
- Developing a GMC employee training package to increase staff awareness of mental health issues.
Chief executive of the GMC Niall Dickson, said the GMC understands that a fitness-to-practise investigation is a ‘stressful experience’ but he is determined to make sure the regulator handles such cases with sensitivity.
He added: ‘We know that some doctors who come into our procedures have very serious health concerns, including those who have had ideas of committing suicide. We know too that for any doctor, being investigated by the GMC is a stressful experience and very often follows other traumas in their lives. Our first duty must, of course, be to protect patients but we are determined to do everything we can to make sure we handle these cases as sensitively as possible, to ensure the doctors are being supported locally and to reduce the impact of our procedures.’
Mr Dickson said that a GMC referral will ‘always be a difficult and anxious time for the doctor involved’, but the regulator were determined to make sure they are ‘as quick, simple and as low stress as we can make them’.
He added: ‘We have made some progress on this but we have more to do, and that includes securing legal reform. We will now review our current process for dealing with doctors with health problems and identify any further changes that may be needed.’
Professor Gerada, who leads the Practitioner Health Programme (PHP), which supports doctors with mental health issues, said she ‘applauded the GMC’s openness in putting in the public domain the issue of doctors’ suicides whilst under their process’.
She added: ‘Going forward they need to continue to show their commitment to reducing the impact of fitness to practise investigations on vulnerable doctors whilst always maintaining patient safety – a substantial task.
‘Doctors are sometimes patients too and supporting vulnerable doctors is a shared responsibility. It is important that in taking forward the recommendations in the review the GMC works in partnership with everyone who has an interest in this area including the Practitioner Health Programme, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the BMA.’
The report states that many of the doctors who committed suicide during this period suffered from a mental health disorder or had drug and/or alcohol addictions.
Meanwhile, other factors which followed on from those conditions that may also have contributed to their deaths include marriage breakdown, financial hardship, and in some cases police involvement as well as the stress of being investigated by the GMC.
Last month, Professor Gerada argued that the GMC’s recent consultation on new sanctions guidance focused too much on ‘maintaining public confidence’ was about basing its decisions on ‘what the tabloid newspapers might think’.