Protecting patient safety should always be the number one priority for the health service, but we must ensure that GPs and other doctors are properly supported when they are put through fitness to practice investigations.
Many GPs who come out of the process vindicated have told me how emotionally draining, frightening and stressful they have felt during what is often described as an ‘ordeal’ – hardly surprising, as the GMC has the power to take away livelihoods and end careers built on decades of hard work.
It’s also a process that can take years to work with, making it even more stressful to cope with.
No one disagrees that at times it is necessary to take action against doctors to protect patients but we should not ignore the difficulty that many innocent doctors experience. In a climate where many GPs are overworked (with a recent BMA survey suggesting four in ten describe themselves as close to burnout) a GMC investigation has the potential to push some vulnerable people over the edge.
What is needed is to identify and tackle the problems in advance of doctors getting to the GMC, which means a fully funded and proactive occupational health service should be essential. This has to be a priority for the future. Schemes such as the one currently in operation in London provide a life-saving service but sadly rather than rolling this excellent scheme out nationally we are seeing cuts instead. While we are all aware of the acute funding problems facing the NHS, we should not allow financial imperatives to put the welfare of doctors at risk. This is the kind of short-sightedness that not only costs the health service more in the long run but ultimately, as the GMC suggests, costs lives too.
It is pleasing that the GMC has acknowledged the shortcomings in the current situation and are looking towards reform for the future. The BMA provides counselling and support services for all doctors, but we do strongly believe that more must be done to help support vulnerable doctors. Action is long overdue and must begin immediately.
Dr Richard Vautrey is the deputy chair of the GPC and a GP in Leeds.