Max Pemberton

The petty cruelty of the GMC

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Doctors make mistakes. We mess up, have lapses in judgment, do stupid or downright wrong things. Some break the law, some violate trust. Patients place their wellbeing, and sometimes their lives, in our hands. So it’s only right that we are held to account. All good doctors want scrutiny.

Our regulator, the General Medical Council (GMC), is supposed to be there to uphold the standards of the medical profession. It’s meant to help maintain the trust that the public places in us. This, of course, gives it an extraordinary amount of power: it can take away livelihoods.

But the GMC has lost our trust. Many doctors feel that the organisation is now out of control, hellbent on pursuing petty indiscretions above all else. Increasingly, it looks like a vindictive, sclerotic and overly bureaucratic embarrassment that assumes a degree of guilt from the start and aggressively pursues doctors as a result. After a number of appallingly misguided cases, the doctor’s union, the British Medical Association (BMA), has called for a complete overhaul of how the GMC operates.

The impact of a GMC investigation, which is often deeply adversarial, cannot be overestimated. Decisions can take months, sometimes years, meaning that doctors are left in limbo for significant periods of time, frequently over bewildering, vexatious or inappropriate referrals.

Most doctors who have been referred talk about the tremendous toll an investigation takes on their mental health. In fact, I know this from personal experience: I was referred by a patient who made an incredibly serious allegation that I had assaulted them while assessing them in A&E. Despite two police officers being present throughout the assessment, and two other members of staff also accompanying me – and there being CCTV of the entire encounter which showed I didn’t even touch the patient, let alone assault them – the process took 11 months.

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