By Douglas Shepherd
Radical reform to GMC investigations are being urged following new research revealing significant numbers of private doctors are experiencing thoughts of suicide or quitting medicine as a result of their investigation.
Three in four of 56 independent practitioners who took part said the process had a detrimental impact on their mental health, with 95% citing stress and anxiety.
A quarter considered leaving medicine, while a third reported experiencing suicidal thoughts during inquiries.
The figures were released by defence body Medical Protection Society (MPS) after it surveyed 197 doctors investigated by the regulator in the last five years.
64% of private practitioners said the length of the investigation impacted on their mental health most. With some it lasted years.
55% said the GMC’s tone of communications affected them most.
Doctors commenting anonymously spoke of a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ tone in the initial GMC letter.
Dr Rob Hendry
MPS medical director Dr Rob Hendry said the GMC had made many improvements to its initial communication with doctors, but more was needed.
Its first letter to a doctor could alleviate some anxiety by setting out the GMC’s legal requirement to investigate all complaints and its policy for dealing with malicious gripes – which were a huge source of stress for doctors and could take months to resolve.
Sword of Damocles
‘The language in the GMC letter and case examiners’ report when an investigation has been closed with no further action can also have a detrimental effect on a doctor’s mental health. Many felt it implied “we’ll get you next time” and I have heard doctors describe this as feeling like they have the sword of Damocles hanging over them.’
He urged the Government to progress GMC reform with urgency to give the regulator more discretion to not take forward investigations where allegations clearly required no action.
Dr Hendry said reforms should reduce the number of doctors pursued on the basis that action would ‘protect public confidence in the profession’. Investigations should surely be focused on those potentially posing a patient safety risk.
He added: ‘The GMC also needs to communicate more clearly that it has been set up to deal with serious concerns, to help reduce the large number of referrals it receives about doctors that do not come close to requiring a sanction.’