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GMC warns GPs not to discuss personal beliefs with patients

Doctors may only discuss their personal beliefs if a patient asks or makes it clear they are receptive to it, a rewrite of the GMC’s Good Medical Practice guidance is expected to say.

The revised guidance – due to be published next month – comes after the GMC came under intense pressure to clarify its guidance on expressing personal beliefs following a controversial case where a Christian GP in Kent was given a formal warning after discussing his faith with a patient.

Previous guidance advised that doctors ‘should not normally’ discuss their personal beliefs with patients, but the new guidance approved by GMC Council last month makes it clear that doctors must not breach ‘professional boundaries’ and should restrict discussions to those that are ‘relevant to the patient’s care’.

GMC Council minutes said the regulator had had a ‘huge response’ to proposed changes to the guidance, with nearly 600 submissions to its consultation, which closed in June.

Following the response, the GMC has redrafted the guidance as part of a wider revision of Good Medical Practice due to come into force next year.

The final guidance will be published in November after final approval from the GMC chair.

The GMC claimed the guidance will protect patients’ rights and prevent offence, but critics said it would further restrict the freedom of doctors to practise as they see fit.

The GMC Council minutes said: ‘The draft guidance on personal beliefs was the only guidance to provoke a large response, and a substantial challenge to the principles on which the guidance was founded.’

The new guidance says: ‘You must be very careful not to breach the professional boundary that exists between you, and must continue to exist if the trust is to be maintained.

‘You may talk about your own personal beliefs only if a patient asks you directly about them or the patient indicates they would welcome such a discussion.’

The regulator was forced to clarify in 2009 that it endorsed ‘tactful’ offers of prayer from doctors, after the high profile case of Dr Richard Scott.

Dr Scott, who practises in Margate, was finally issued with a warning earlier this year after admitting he discussed religion as a way of helping a patient at the end of a consultation.

Dr Scott said the news marked a ‘terrible day’ for the profession.

He said: ‘If a doctor feels this is an appropriate way for a consultation to proceed, but is unable to do so unless a patient initiates this line of discussion, not only is the doctor hampered in his efforts but the patient is denied access to a proven benefit.’

But Dr Richard Vautrey, GPC deputy chair as well as a practising Methodist, welcomed the new clearer guidance on personal beliefs.

He said: ‘If a patient asked me, I would be open with them as I would be about any aspect of my own life. But I think it would have to be appropriate for that particular context.

‘You always have to be mindful of the power relationship between a doctor and a patient.’


What has changed?

‘You may talk about your own personal beliefs only if a patient asks you directly about them or the patient indicates they would welcome such a discussion.’

Draft version of Good Medical Practice approved by GMC Council last month

‘You should not normally discuss your personal beliefs with patients unless those beliefs are directly relevant to the patient’s care.’

Personal beliefs and medical practice – GMC guidance for doctors March 2008