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GP counselling service should be rolled out nationwide, says new GMC chair

Exclusive The new chair of the GMC has said a confidential counselling service to support GPs should be rolled out nationwide and that the profession has ‘added stress’ compared with other doctors.

In his first major media interview since taking up the post, Professor Terence Stephenson said that he supported the wider rollout of a scheme similar to the Practitioner Health Programme in London and as called for by Pulse in its Battling Burnout campaign.

Professor Stephenson told MPs at a parliamentary hearing earlier this year that doctors should expect to face a GMC investigation during their career as an ‘occupational hazard’ and should build up resilience to deal with it similar to soldiers in Afghanistan.

Professor Stephenson told Pulse that complaints against GPs ‘provide an added stress’ compared with hospital doctors because they work within the same community as their patients ‘every day of their practising lives’.

The comments follow the publication of long awaited independent review, which revealed that 28 doctors died by suicide during an GMC investigation. This was followed by a study by Imperial College London that found complaints procedures ‘may do more overall harm than good in terms of patient care’.

When asked what could be done to support GPs, Professor Stephenson said that a helpline for doctors going through fitness-to-practise investigations commissioned by the GMC had been a ‘success’, but that he would also support a national support service being provided for all doctors, as recommended by the GMC review.

He said: ‘Anyone being investigated by the GMC could speak to a doctor confidentially for emotional support – and could be accompanied to a hearing. It seems to have been a success and we want now to make that service permanent.

‘One of the review’s other recommendations, which we also support although it’s not in our gift to provide, is the Practitioner Health Programme in London, run by… Professor Gerada.’ 

He said the GMC ‘absolutely support’ the principle of rolling it out across the UK, but added ‘we don’t provide health services or pay for health services for doctors’.

He said: ‘[GPs] may not live in that community but they´re in that community every day of their practising lives. 

‘And I can see that that may provide an added pressure than as a hospital doctor where you’re perhaps seeing people referred to you or people who’ve travelled to come to the A&E department that you´re then not meeting them. You´re not meeting them in the supermarket or the bank the next day, so I fully accept that provides an added stress.’

The GMC chair told Pulse that he stands by his comment that doctors should have resilience training like soldiers in Afghanistan, and that ‘we can learn from other disciplines’.

The GMC has said more needs to be done to improve its fitness-to-practise process, and that it fully accepts the recommendations outlined in its internal review – including establishing a culture of innocent until proven guilty and reducing the length of investigations.

Professor Stephenson took over from Professor Sir Peter Rubin as the chair of the GMC at the start of 2015.