Research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine found that the coronavirus pandemic had ‘shone a spotlight on pre-existing issues’ within the regulatory investigations process.
Doctors and other healthcare professionals have worked in unfamiliar surroundings, or been assigned to new clinical areas while balancing heavy workload and tackling an unknown virus during the pandemic, the researchers say.
Working in these conditions has led to an increase in complaints, the researchers warn - and BAME doctors are likely to be disproportionately affected because they are already twice as likely to be referred to the GMC by their employer as white doctors.
BAME doctors at risk
BAME doctors face a potential 'double hit' because they face potentially increased personal health risk during the pandemic on top of this disproportionate medico-legal threat, they argue.
The researchers have called for an urgent public inquiry into 'the persistent medicolegal issues revealed by COVID-19'.
They also argue that calls for a system of 'temporary immunity' similar to the system adopted in New York to protect healthcare professionals from civil and criminal liability during the pandemic is the wrong approach.
Co-author Dr Arpan Mehta said: 'We argue that temporary immunity is not a suitable solution. COVID-19 is not the genesis of the issue; it has only brought to light pre-existing problems.'
He added: ‘A longer-term solution would be to promote a just culture of learning that supports the needs of both doctors and patients.
‘The fragility of these roles has been laid bare by the pandemic, where caregivers have become patients and members of the public have stepped up to support the delivery of NHS services – we need a system that is flexible, inclusive and properly monitored to drive change.'
Dr Mehta added that the pandemic had exposed and deepened inequality. He said: ‘Unfortunately, COVID-19 is a disease that does discriminate.
'There is the potential for frontline BAME healthcare professionals to be "double hit" by COVID-19; on the one hand, they are subjected to disproportionate personal medical risks from COVID-19, and on the other hand, they may be at greater legal risk as well. The latter needs to be carefully monitored and mitigated against at all levels in the healthcare system.’
Medico-legal experts warned last month that GPs could face a huge wave of complaints due to changes to working practices adopted during the pandemic and delays in access to secondary care.
Calls for the government to reform the healthcare legal framework come as medico-legal experts warned earlier this year that doctors are more vulnerable to legal challenge during the pandemic as they called for emergency laws to be introduced.