Doctor suicides prompt GMC review

THE treatment of vulnerable doctors under investigation by the General Medical Council is to be reviewed after a report found a number of them had committed suicide.

Between 2005 and 2013, 28 doctors undergoing fitness to practise investigations died as a result of suicide or suspected suicide.

An independent review found many of the doctors who had taken their own life suffered from a recognised mental health disorder or had drug and/or alcohol problems.

Other related factors that may also have contributed to their deaths included marriage breakdown, financial hardship, police involvement and the stress of being investigated by the GMC.

The review acknowledged the “significant improvements” the GMC has made to its investigations process in recent years and the additional support offered to doctors.

It set out a number of recommendations on how to further improve the way the regulator treats doctors.

The report called for a change in culture so that doctors under investigation feel they are treated as “innocent until proven guilty”. The number of health examiners’ reports required for health assessments should be reduced and a senior medical officer should be appointed within the GMC to oversee health cases.

Case conferencing should be introduced for all health and performance cases and pre-qualification criteria should be set out for referrals from NHS providers and independent employers.

Other recommendations include for “emotional resilience training” to be made “an integral part of the medical curriculum”.

GMC investigation staff should be exposed to frontline clinical practice and awareness raised of mental health issues. The report also recommended the creation of a National Support Service for doctors.

GMC chief executive Niall Dickson acknowledged the investigation process can be stressful for doctors, but said “our first duty must, of course, be to protect patients”.

He said the regulator was committed to handling cases “as sensitively as possible, to ensure the doctors are being supported locally and to reduce the impact of our procedures.”

He added: “We will now review our current process for dealing with doctors with health problems and identify any further changes that may be needed.” He said the GMC would set a meeting in the New Year to bring together relevant parties to discuss the setting up of a National Support Service for doctors.

Medical director of the Practitioner Health Programme, Dr Clare Gerada, welcomed the review.

“I applaud the GMC’s openness in putting in the public domain the issue of doctors’ suicides whilst under their process,” she said. “Going forward they need to continue to show their commitment to reducing the impact of fitness to practise investigations on vulnerable doctors whilst always maintaining patient safety - a substantial task.”

Download the full report here