GPs undergoing investigation by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) due to patient complaints will be asked which clinical guidelines they followed when making relevant decisions.
The change to the complaints investigation process, which has come into force this month, was implemented after a court ruling in a recent GP appeal case noted that the ombudsman’s standard for judging quality of care was ‘incoherent’.
But GP leaders questioned the new process, arguing that doctors need to be able to exercise ‘professional judgement’ when treating patients.
The updated Ombudsman’s Clinical Standard says the PHSO ‘will ask the clinician or organisation complained about to tell us what, if any, standards or guidance they based their practice on, whether they followed them or departed from them in the situation complained about and why’.
It says: ‘If there is a relevant standard or guidance and the clinical decisions, actions and judgements do not appear to have been in line with it, we will consider what evidence there may be to explain this.’
It adds that in deciding ‘whether there has been good clinical care and treatment’ the ombudsman ‘will consider the explanations of those complained about and balance them against the relevant standards or guidance’.
Where there is ‘no established standards or guidance’, the PHSO will expect a ‘rationale or justification for the care or treatment provided’.
In the foreword to the new standard, the PHSO said: ‘When we look at a case, we begin our scrutiny of the health service that has been complained about with the expectation that good clinical care and treatment can be demonstrated by reference to standards or guidance.
‘Good care and treatment will incorporate professional and health service standards and guidance and may incorporate the most up-to-date scientific evidence, for example, regarding the effectiveness of treatments.’
The PHSO argued the new standard would make the judging process ‘more transparent’.
A spokesperson said: ‘Our new clinical standard gives greater clarity and predictability to how we consider the appropriateness of NHS clinical care and treatment in England.
‘This will offer those complained about an earlier and clearer opportunity to explain how they reached decisions about care and treatment, and make our approach more transparent for the people who use our service.’
But BMA GP Committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘GPs treat their patients as clinically appropriate, based on the best evidence, taking into account local and national guidelines.
‘However consultations are often complex and patients require a holistic approach with a good degree of professional judgement required to deliver the most appropriate outcome.’
He added that the BMA ‘will be seeking a meeting with the Ombudsman to talk about the implications of this statement for GPs to ensure they fully understand the challenges GPs face in their day-to-day care of patients’.
The Ombudsman’s Clinical Standard
- When we are considering complaints about clinical care and treatment we consider whether there has been ‘good clinical care and treatment’. We aim to establish what would have been good clinical care and treatment in the situation complained about and to decide whether the care and treatment complained about fell short of that.
- We will seek to establish what constituted good clinical care and treatment on the facts of the case by reference to a range of material, including relevant standards or guidance, the accounts of the complainant and the clinician or organisation complained about and any other relevant records and information.
- Relevant standards or guidance we may consider include NICE guidance, clinical pathways, professional regulators’ codes of practice and guidance, guidance from royal colleges, local protocols or policies, and published research including clinical text books or research reported in peer review journal articles.
- In deciding whether a standard or guidance was relevant in the situation complained about we will consider factors such as whether it was in place at the time of the events complained about and whether it was applicable to the care and treatment the person received and to the setting in which the care and treatment took place.
- We will ask the clinician or organisation complained about to tell us what if any standards or guidance they based their practice on, whether they followed them or departed from them in the situation complained about and why. If there is a relevant standard or guidance and the clinical decisions, actions and judgements do not appear to have been in line with it, we will consider what evidence there may be to explain this. We will reach a decision about whether there has been good clinical care and treatment. In doing so we will consider the explanations of those complained about and balance them against the relevant standards or guidance.
- We will also consider the ‘Principles of Good Administration’ insofar as they apply to the clinical context.