GMC backs plan to set up support service for vulnerable doctors

The GMC and healthcare leaders have agreed that a national support service for doctors with mental health or addiction problems should be established, and that this should be separate from the GMC to encourage doctors to seek confidential support.

GMC chief executive Niall Dickson: support for vulnerable doctors (photo: Chris Renton)
GMC chief executive Niall Dickson: support for vulnerable doctors (photo: Chris Renton)

The regulator said it had agreed ‘key principles for supporting vulnerable doctors’ following a roundtable discussion it hosted with the GPC and other healthcare leaders, including the creation of a national support service to allow struggling doctors to access confidential support.

The service will be ‘separate from the GMC and seen to be separate’ to encourage doctors to self-refer and disclose any problems, but with the caveat that there must be some liaison with the GMC if a risk to patient safety is suspected.

Creation of this service was among nine recommendations in a landmark independent review on doctor suicides, commissioned by the GMC, which uncovered 28 suicide cases between 2005 and 2013 among doctors under investigation.

Published last December, the review, conducted by Sarndrah Horsfall, found that many of the doctors who committed suicide ‘suffered from a recognised mental disorder, most commonly depressive illness, bipolar disorder and personality disorder’ and some ‘also had drug or alcohol addictions’.

The GMC said it was ‘keen’ to discuss how the other recommendations outlined in the report could be taken forward at future meetings.

Doctor suicide risk

GPs have previously warned that struggling doctors need extra support, and have urged the GMC to change how it conducts inspections, claiming the current regime flouts ‘basic human rights’ and forces doctors to ‘practise in fear’.

GP leaders petitioned for change at this year’s LMCs conference, during which GPC representative Dr Katie Bramall-Stainer revealed that doctors under GMC investigation face a suicide risk 13 times higher than the general population.

Delegates unanimously voted for the GMC to implement the Horsfall review’s recommendations in full at both the UK LMCs conference and the Scottish LMCs conference this year.

GMC chief executive Niall Dickson said: ‘The case for better support for vulnerable doctors has been clearly demonstrated by the amazing work that is already underway. The challenge facing the system as a whole is that such services are not found everywhere.

‘We will certainly work with experts in this area to encourage the development of better support as well as seeking their help as we reform the way we deal with this group of doctors within our procedures. We have found this discussion enormously helpful.'

Mental health

GPC deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey welcomed the plans. ‘It’s clearly something that’s needed and it’s a response to the unacceptably high number of people having mental health problems as part of a GMC review,’ he said.

‘I think there's often a tension where GPs are reluctant to firstly admit there’s a problem, but when they do recognise there's a problem or a colleague encourages them to seek help, they're anxious about utilising the available NHS service in their area.

‘We do need to have a specialised service that they can access in a confidential way so that they don’t feel frightened about what would happen if they were to access a service their patients were at the same time.’

Horsfall review recommendations in full

  • Doctors under investigation should feel they are treated as ‘innocent until proven guilty’

  • Reduce the number of health examiners’ reports required for health assessments

  • Appoint a senior medical officer within the GMC to be responsible for overseeing health cases

  • Introduce case conferencing for all health and performance cases

  • Set out pre-qualification criteria for referrals from NHS providers and independent employers

  • Make emotional resilience training an integral part of the medical curriculum

  • Expose GMC investigation staff to frontline clinical practice

  • Develop a GMC employee training package to increase staff awareness of mental health issues.

  • Establish a National Support Service (NSS) for doctors

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