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Notice Board - September 2011

Risk Alert: Have you read the small print?

30 September 2011

THERE seems to be no limit to the number of forms, certificates and official documents that require the approval and signature of a doctor or dentist.

And for healthcare professionals who already have many demands placed on their time, it could be easy to become complacent when presented with ever increasing piles of paperwork.

But it is vital that clinicians check what they are being asked to sign before endorsing it. Anyone who fails to read the small print could face serious consequences if it is found they have signed-off a document that later turns out to contain inaccurate or misleading information.

MDDUS regularly receives calls from clinicians on issues relating to signing, for example, firearms certificate applications, forms relating to a patient’s capacity or fitness to travel, soul and conscience letters relating to patients making a court appearance and other legal documents.

Regardless of the document to be signed, it is crucial that doctors and dentists read it carefully to check that what is written is truthful and honest. Clinicians should also not be tempted to omit relevant patient information from reports as this could be regarded as misleading. Failing to make these checks could result in your conduct being challenged by the General Medical Council or General Dental Council.

One recent case dealt with by MDDUS involved a doctor who provided a report to an insurance company that was deemed misleading and he was referred to the GMC. While the case was eventually resolved in his favour, the doctor endured considerable anxiety while his professional conduct was called into question.

One issue that has come to prominence recently involves doctors who are asked by patients to act as a countersignatory or referee for a shotgun or other firearm certificate application. It has sparked a strong warning from the BMA’s ethics department who are advising doctors not to be drawn into predicting the “future dangerousness” of applicants.

They say doctors should not endorse such applications from patients “unless they believe that they have sufficient knowledge about the individual to justify a judgement that the individual could safely possess and control such firearms or shotguns”. This is likely to occur rarely, they add.

The BMA have produced new guidance on the issue that describes the role of countersignatory or referee as providing information the police can use when considering whether to award a certificate. They have raised concerns that doctors may be called on to offer a medical opinion in this role, even though most would not have sufficient knowledge of the applicant’s mental stability.

The guidance states: “Doctors acting as referees or countersignatories should do so on a personal basis rather than as medical professionals, and they should not therefore be expected to offer any medical opinion as to the applicant’s mental state or likely future behaviour.”

It also adds that doctors are under no obligation to sign firearm or shotgun certificate applications.

ACTION: Always read documents carefully before signing to ensure they are truthful and honest. Failure to do so could lead to a challenge from the GDC or GMC.