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Let’s not scapegoat the GMC

From Julie Norris, a partner at law firm Kingsley Napley LLP specialising in regulatory issues for healthcare professionals

Reading the tragic news that a newly qualified GP voted ’Trainee GP of the Year’ hanged himself after fearing he would be struck off by the GMC for failing an alcohol test, it is all too easy to react to the headlines.

Whilst this case, of course, raises important questions as to the role that the GMC should play in safeguarding doctors subject to investigation, it must be recognised that the GMC can only do so much to protect doctors who find themselves in similar positions to Dr Halcrow.

The GMC regulates over 230,000 doctors. In 2014, it reviewed over 9,000 concerns raised about doctors, conducted 2,763 investigations and oversaw 219 hearings before the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service – that is quite a caseload.

I am not usually the first to defend the regulator’s actions. However on this occasion I believe magnanimity is required.

We know that Dr Halcrow is not the first doctor to have found the pressure too much. Between 2005 and 2013, 28 doctors apparently committed suicide during their GMC investigation. That is clearly 28 doctors too many. What these ‘startling’ statistics do not show, however, is that over 70% of these individuals were being investigated over health concerns. Perhaps they were suffering the stress of their job, perhaps there were other issues. We cannot, however, eliminate the presence of, or a susceptibility to, mental health problems.

Also obscured is the fact that many doctors investigated by the GMC are the subject of ‘multiple jeopardy’, that is being involved in a number of investigations at once. It quickly becomes quite difficult to tell what the real reasons are for the 28 doctors having made such a drastic decision as to take their own life, and therefore it would be wrong simply to blame the GMC knee-jerk style.

The loss of such a talented doctor, son and friend as Dr Halcrow is sad beyond measure. Let us not scapegoat the GMC though. It was right his alcohol consumption should be of concern to them: alcohol misuse that may affect a doctor’s ability to deal safely with his patient’s falls squarely into the arena of the GMC’s duty to protect the public. We would be scornful if harm were caused to a patient due to the inactivity of the GMC.

As a solicitor who regularly advises doctors in the eye of a GMC investigation, I am not usually the first to defend the regulator’s actions. However on this occasion I believe magnanimity is required. To be fair to the GMC, this time last year it commissioned research into the emotional impact of proceedings on doctors and it is now taking steps to reduce the numbers of suicides through the implementation of the eight recommendations in that report. These steps clearly cannot come soon enough. Yet whilst the GMC has a big part to play, so too does that team that looks after the doctor under investigation. The lawyers, the medical defence organisation, friends and family must all rally and support doctors who are the subject of GMC proceedings. Even for the most robust of doctors, these can be stressful and isolating times.

RIP Dr Halcrow. However to those who have cried shame on the GMC, things are often actually more complex than that.