More doctors and dentists suspended, but for shorter periods

THE number of doctors and dentists in England excluded or suspended from work has increased over the past five years, but the length of bans imposed has decreased, new figures show.

A report from the National Clinical Assessment Service (NCAS) shows that last year there were 216 new “episodes” of exclusion of hospital and community (H&C) doctors (134 cases) and suspension of general practitioners (82 cases), up from 140 in 2005/2006.

Last year three H&C dentists were excluded and 12 general dental practitioners (GDPs) were suspended compared to four H&C dentists and one GDP in 2005/2006.

At the end of March 2011, 47 H&C doctors, 47 GPs, one H&C dentist and six GDPs were excluded or suspended from work. H&C doctors and dentists were excluded for an average of 21 weeks, down from 23 weeks in 2009/2010, while GPs were suspended for an average of 35 weeks, compared to 44 weeks the previous year.

Figures for GDPs are only available for the last two years and are less representative. They showed the average suspension period was 38 weeks at the end of March 2011 compared to 19 the year before and 39 in 2009.

The NCAS figures relate to NHS exclusions and suspensions and not to those imposed by the General Medical Council or General Dental Council. The term suspension applies in general practice while the term exclusion applies to H&C practitioners but both mean the practitioner is removed from clinical work.

The NCAS report also showed that the risk of suspension for GPs remains higher than the risk of exclusion for H&C doctors and dentists. The risk for GDPs is low.

The increase in suspensions and exclusions is often a result of managers having no immediate alternative when they have concerns about a clinician’s practice, in particular where patient safety is concerned, said NCAS, a national advisory service that helps healthcare organisations and individuals resolve concerns about professional practice.

However, the reduction in duration of exclusions and suspensions suggests a “faster resolution” of cases, it added. Given that medical and dental practitioners who are suspended or excluded from work usually remain on full pay while problems are investigated, extended periods of exclusion or suspension can be “very costly” to the NHS, it said.

Senior NCAS adviser Claire McLaughlan said that overall the number of working weeks lost because of suspensions or exclusions of doctors and dentists fell by 14 per cent from 2009/2010, which could generate a saving of more than £3million for the NHS.

She said: “These trends are good news for the service, for practitioners, and for patient safety as increasing numbers of managers are using suspension and exclusion appropriately.”