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MPTS acknowledges ‘stress and workload’ in decision to suspend GP who drank on the job

MPTS acknowledges ‘stress and workload’ in decision to suspend GP who drank on the job

An MPTS tribunal has taken into account stress and workload as mitigating factors in the decision to suspend a GP who consumed alcohol at work.

Dr Catherine Aspinall consumed alcohol in February last year while she was working as a GP at Westway Medical Centre, near Liverpool, and treated ‘one or more patients’ while under the influence of alcohol, the tribunal heard.

She was suspended for three months as the tribunal noted that at the time of the incident she was stressed and working long hours while sleep deprived.  

As the hearing took place, Dr Aspinall’s patients started a petition asking the GMC to consider ‘the excessive level of stress’ that GPs face when dealing with misconduct cases and implement ‘a more compassionate and supportive approach’ that takes into account the underlying stressors faced by GPs.

The tribunal’s record of determination said: ‘Following a concern raised with reception staff by a patient who had just come out of a consultation with her, the practice manager entered Dr Aspinall’s room to find Dr Aspinall intoxicated and unable to stand.

‘Dr Aspinall was noted to smell strongly of alcohol and was unable to have a coherent conversation.

‘She was asked whether she had drunk any wine and she indicated that she had drunk a few sips that morning.

‘As a result of this Dr Aspinall was suspended from all duties at the medical centre for four weeks, in order to allow for an internal investigation.’

Dr Aspinall provided her own witness statement during the hearing and gave oral evidence, where she detailed ‘the stress she was under at the time of the events’ and that she ‘intends to remain abstinent from alcohol’.

When considering the appropriate period of suspension, the tribunal noted ‘the significant mitigating factors’ and that no further remediation would need to be demonstrated during the period of suspension.

It bore in mind ‘the evidence of good insight’ and ‘extensive remediation provided by Dr Aspinall’, that there was a low risk of repetition and as such she did not present a risk to patient safety.  

The tribunal also considered that Dr Aspinall has remained abstinent from alcohol and ‘has been employed without issue since then’.

The record added: ‘The tribunal also noted the personal circumstances of Dr Aspinall at the time which included struggling to manage her workload and working long hours whilst being sleep deprived.

‘The tribunal considered that Dr Aspinall has good insight and appears to have coped by working part-time at a supportive practice.

‘Due to her significant insight, remediation, change in personal circumstances and employment of better coping mechanisms, the tribunal was satisfied that she can now pick up signs of stress at an earlier stage and take remedial action, meaning the risk of repetition is low.’

When considering aggravating factors, the tribunal took into account that Dr Aspinall had received a warning from the GMC in 2016 for a drink driving conviction, and that this was not the first time therefore that Dr Aspinall ‘had come to the attention of the GMC for reckless behaviour that endangered the public following consumption of alcohol’.

The tribunal also bore in mind that Dr Aspinall ‘did not raise concerns about her lack of ability to work in a manner that kept patients safe, and that her misconduct involved intoxication in the workplace’.

‘This demonstrated a reckless approach to patient safety which undermines public confidence in the medical profession,’ the record added.

Suzanne Gordon, who started the petition, said that patients who have benefited from Dr Aspinall’s ‘dedicated care and expertise’ understand that being a GP is ‘an incredibly demanding profession’.

The petition said: ‘By providing GPs with access to confidential counselling services, stress management programs, and other support mechanisms, we can help them navigate the challenges they face without resorting to harmful coping strategies.

‘This approach will not only benefit doctors but also ensure the continued provision of high-quality healthcare services to our community.

‘We implore the GMC to review its current practices and policies regarding misconduct cases involving alcohol use by GPs.

‘We urge you to consider implementing a more compassionate and supportive approach that takes into account the underlying stressors faced by these professionals.’

Dr Lizzie Toberty, GP chair for the Doctors’ Association UK, told Pulse: ‘It’s really moving that even our patients can see the stress GPs are under. There is of course help available via the NHS Practitioner Health programme but this is not addressing the cause of these problems.

‘We agree with these patients – the GMC must recognise the context within which transgressions take place.

‘Doctors’ Association UK believe the problems with clinician mental health issues are deeply linked to the underfunding of primary care.

‘Whenever unfunded work is pushed into primary care, there is no one to do it but the GP. The cost is not financial, the cost is the GP’s mental health when the strain of providing for too many patients in a broken health service gets too much.

‘We need a properly funded primary care service where GPs are valued health care professionals. This would go a long way to help prevent such cases.’

Dr Zaid Al-Najjar, medical director at NHS Practitioner Health told Pulse: ‘We have become aware of the recent case where the MPTS have suspended a GP who was found to have been under the influence of alcohol whilst at work.

‘We were heartened to hear of the warm support she has since received from her patients following the MPTS determination.

‘We always advocate for a supportive rather than punitive approach by regulatory bodies in such cases.

‘Sadly, we are all too familiar with the health impact that periods of prolonged stress in demanding roles like primary care can have on practitioners and it is important that services like NHS Practitioner Health continue to be able to provide support and treatment when needed.’

In January, Pulse reported that a growing number of GPs were seeking support from NHS Practitioner Health for the first time because of ‘ongoing pressures’ on the NHS. 

Meanwhile, in 2017 a Pulse survey suggested that one in nine GPs has turned to alcohol because of work pressures, while 6% have turned to prescription drugs.

The GMC declined to comment.


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Please note, only GPs are permitted to add comments to articles

Not on your Nelly 13 October, 2023 5:28 pm

I presume surname and other characteristics where also taken into account ?

Anonymous 13 October, 2023 6:39 pm

Do you think if she was an immigrant, they would have been so lenient?

John Graham Munro 13 October, 2023 6:51 pm

Whilst my heart goes out to this young lady——– we have not heard the last of her

SUBHASH BHATT 13 October, 2023 7:55 pm

If it was dr from abroad I think result will be different. If dr is doing out of hours call after full days work , maybe there is a case. Not in day surgery..

Frances Webster 14 October, 2023 11:44 am

Should this be reported in Pulse? Is that helping or hindering the practitioner involved? If yes then can you use initials or X year old female GP. Some real dog whistle responses here.

Sonia Taneja 14 October, 2023 1:45 pm

Guaranteed….if she had an ethnic surname or background then a) patients wouldn’t have started a petition, b) she’d be struck off.

A Non 14 October, 2023 5:31 pm

I think if was w

Faraz Hussain 15 October, 2023 1:09 pm

“low risk of repetition and as such she did not present a risk to patient safety”.

Caught for drink driving in 2016. Then treating patients while intoxicated 2023. Seems like repetition to me. Not only risking public safety with her driving but patient safety with her drunk consultations.

Seems its one rule if you’re Caucasian and another if you’re any other race.

Maybe if she asked for a laptop she would of been struck off?

Carpe Vinum 16 October, 2023 11:26 am

Sign of the insane times that an apparently sensible response to someone struggling to work in our collapsing healthcare system is derailed by a knee-jerk “what if she was ethnic” response.
Surely the response here should be a degree of compassion that someone has been driven to breaking point (as many GPs are – of all colours and persuasions)

Anonymous 16 October, 2023 7:24 pm

@Carpe Vinum – nothing close to sensible about letting a drunk alcoholic treat patients by the same panel who wanted to strike off a hardworking foreign doctor for a laptop request.
Compassion is not what the panel is for, they are there to protect the public, not to forgive anyones sins.
The difference in judgements is what the comments are pointing out.

Truth Finder 18 October, 2023 10:56 am

The outcome would be quite different if the name is foreign. The double standards

Hot Felon 18 October, 2023 8:46 pm

@ Faraz Hussain it is would HAVE not would OF.
It’s not asking a doctor (I assume you are one) too much to write English correctly.

Hank Beerstecher 27 October, 2023 11:58 pm

@anonymous MPTS is not about protecting the public, it is about public shaming, “to set an example” is nearly always the reasoning behind a suspension.