Consultants encouraged to become expert witnesses

Private healthcare providers should encourage consultants to engage in expert witness training, according to a defence body.

The Medical Protection Society’s (MPS’s) call follows the launch of its report Getting it right when things go wrong: the role of the medical expert, which highlights a shortage of appropriately qualified doctors willing to do this work and the need for the pool to be more diverse to reflect the medical workforce. 

GMC figures show 86% of experts instructed in fitness-to-practise cases are men and the MPS fears the low proportion of women on the council’s list is indicative of the wider medical expert community.

MPS medico-legal consultant Dr Lucy Hanington said: ‘Many bodies, including courts and regulators, are reporting difficulties in finding appropriately qualified doctors to undertake expert witness work. 

Dr Lucy Hanington

‘This is concerning in itself, but data showing that only a fraction of GMC experts are women confirms our fear that the expert pool is lacking in diversity as well as in size. There is, though, no single centralised register of accredited expert witnesses to ascertain the complete picture.’  

She said medical expert witnesses influenced society’s perception of the cultural norms and standards in medicine, so it was important that the pool experts were drawn from was diverse and representative of the profession.

it is important that the pool experts are drawn from is diverse and representative of the profession.

‘One common misperception is that an elite few undertake this work at the end their careers.

‘In fact, the majority of consultants and GPs – ideally those in current clinical practice with up-to-date knowledge and a true understanding of the systems in which doctors work – should have the requisite knowledge to provide opinion in their field of expertise after an initial period in post, and should feel confident in doing so. 

“We recognise there are practical difficulties in combining the demands of the court with those of busy clinical practice and family life; however, a lot of expert work can now be completed remotely. 

‘Both private healthcare providers and NHS employers should encourage expert witness training and recognise the gains associated with expert witness work forming an integral part of a private consultant’s skill set,’ she said.