Doctors may face criminal charges for neglect

DOCTORS accused of “wilful neglect” in the care of patients in England and Wales could face criminal charges, according proposals set out in the Government's recent full response to the Francis inquiry.

The offence would be modelled on one punishable by up to five years in prison under the Mental Capacity Act. A consultation on what scale of sentence should be applied to the extended law will be carried out over the next few months.

The recommendation stems from a report on patient safety led by Professor Don Berwick commissioned by the Government in response to the Francis inquiry. It called for new criminal offences to be created for "recklessness or wilful neglect or mistreatment by organisations or individuals and for healthcare organisations which withhold or obstruct relevant information". But the report emphasised that the use of criminal sanctions should be extremely rare and unintended errors must not be criminalised.

Both the Royal College of Physicians and the BMA are not supportive of the proposal.

Dr Maureen Baker, the new chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: "Doctors, nurses - we are human. Human beings make mistakes.

"You can't change the human condition, but you can help support the humans in having systems around them that help keep them safe, caring and compassionate."

Dr Mark Porter, Chair of BMA Council, said: "While extending wilful neglect as a criminal offence may go some way towards reassuring the public, it is unlikely to bring around the change in culture we need, and how this will work in practice is something that we will continue to discuss with the Government as there are already criminal sanctions in place in order to hold healthcare workers, including doctors, to account."

Dr Andrew Collier, co-chairman of the BMA's junior doctors' committee told BBC Breakfast that doctors who failed to meet certain standards needed support and help.

"They don't need this new climate of fear. They don't need to be concerned that they may be sent to jail. What they need to do is learn from their mistakes and develop their practice."