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GMC spares seven doctors from investigation while mentally unwell

The GMC has paused seven fitness-to-practise investigations in order to spare doctors’ mental health.

According to the regulator, this is one of a number of results of its work to reduce the impact of investigations on doctors.

The GMC told Pulse that the majority of recommendations from mental health expert Professor Louis Appleby’s review, accepted by the regulator two years ago, have now been in place since January this year.

This includes the ability to put FtP investigations on hold for up to six months while unwell docors undergo treatment.

The GMC also said that some 400 cases against doctors have not gone to full investigation due to a new approach to clearing up complaints relating to single clinical incidents, which has been piloted since August 2016.

Other measures include early inquiries to improve information-sharing, the appointment of case-co-ordinators to act as a single point of contact for doctors and the involvement of case examiners at an early stage to speed up the process.

The regulator has also increased support for doctors by actively promoting the Doctor Support Service and has introduced a less threatening ‘tone of voice’ into its communications.

Prior to the review, Pulse published a number of reports about pressure that GMC procedures put on vulnerable doctors, including a report that found that 28 doctors had died by suicide while under investigation and that 13 additional doctors died while the regulator contemplated action. Another study showed that complaints against doctors ‘may do more overall harm than good’.

Since 2014, the GMC has recorded two suicides by doctors who were under FtP investigation, and one suicide by a doctor who had been referred for investigation. 

Dr John Smyth, the GMC’s assistant director for FtP case examiners and a practising GP until last year, said: ‘The team has received numerous pieces of feedback that suggest that the experience is [now] seen as being relatively supportive.

‘Obviously doctors are under investigation so they are not going to think it’s a marvellous walk in the park. But they appreciate the fact that they can speak to an individual, that the individual is compassionate and understanding, listens to their concerns and provides information directly to them.’

Commenting on the progress, Professor Appleby said: ‘Recognising the vulnerability of any doctor facing a fitness-to-practise investigation, whether or not they are known to have poor mental health, was a priority when I was appointed to advise the GMC on making improvements to its investigations.

‘Investigations can be punitive in effect, even if that is not the intention. Being able to see things from the point of view of the hardworking, perfectionist, sometimes distressed and probably remorseful doctor, was key to reforming the process.’

He added that although ‘significant’ progress had been made to make the FtP process ‘more compassionate’, the changes would be continually reviewed to ensure doctors were supported as much as possible during ‘what is inevitably a stressful time’.