Doctors’ leaders have warned that a number of clinicians facing investigation have taken their own lives in recent years and have hit out over a lack of support and transparency.
The GMC collects data on suicides among doctors facing investigation but does not regularly publish statistics. However, the regulator has told GPonline it is reviewing the policy as it seeks to ‘achieve a balance between transparency and protection of sensitive information about individuals’.
At a conference in London last week, Doctors Association UK (DAUK) chair Dr Rinesh Parmar said he personally knew five doctors who had killed themselves in the last three years. He said some were under investigation, while others struggled with pressure from other factors such as heavy workload.
The GMC's decision to explore reporting on suicides comes as a petition signed by over 15,000 people called for the regulator to be held accountable for deaths among doctors under investigation. The petition follows the death of anaesthetist Dr Sridharan Suresh, who took his own life in May 2018 while under investigation.
Dr Parmar said annual reporting on suicides would allow the profession to fully 'understand the scope of the problem'. He warned that fitness to practise (FTP) hearings remained ‘legalistic and adversarial’, and called for more support for doctors under investigation.
A GMC spokeperson told GPonline: 'We do collect data on suicides of doctors under investigation [and] use this data to ensure that, when a doctor dies by suicide during an investigation, we conduct a review of our interaction with the doctor to ensure we understand and reflect on the impact of our investigation.
'We are currently discussing how to share that data to support transparency in a way that does not risk disclosure of sensitive information about an individual doctor. We are considering how we can achieve a balance between transparency and protection of sensitive information about individuals.'
In recent years the GMC has carried out a work to improve the way it interacts with doctors under investigation, creating a specialist team to work with doctors who have health concerns.
The regulator has also reduced the number of full investigations it carries out, with more than 950 averted since 2014. But doctors say investigations continue to contribute to suicide deaths of doctors.
Dr Parmar said at a Westminster Health Forum event: 'Doctors agree that fitness to practise hearings continue to be legalistic and adversarial and, at times, at complete odds with our objectives of developing a learning culture.
‘We've seen some positive changes, for example, the reductions of referrals that are progressing to full fitness to practise hearings and reductions in delays to those areas as well. But there's more to be done… we are concerned about the lack of support available to doctors.
‘We've called on the GMC to report annually the number of suicides of doctors under investigation and have written to the prime minister on this. We need to understand the scope of the problem - and it's too easy to say that regulators are not responsible. But actually, we know that they also play a part of this process.’
A 2014 GMC report recommended that medical students should be taught emotional resilience after identifying 28 suicide cases among doctors under investigation. The figure emerged from a GMC review of all deaths of doctors in its fitness to practise process between 2005 - when electronic records began - and 2013, which identified 24 suicides and four suspected suicides.
Meanwhile, three quarters of doctors who took part in a 2014 survey by the Medical Protection Society (MPS) said that being involved in a GMC investigation had a detrimental impact on their physical or mental health.