The regulator said at the beginning of the pandemic that it would consider the ‘very challenging circumstances’ faced by medics if they received complaiunts that led to investigations. It also recognised that some doctors would be forced to work ‘outside their normal scope’ of practice as a result of the strain on the health service.
Acting chair of the GMC Professor Dame Carrie MacEwen has reaffirmed that the regulator will continue to take into account the ‘extraordinary circumstances’ faced by doctors during the pandemic and emphasised that medics had 'distinguished themselves' during a year and a half of disruption.
The reassurance from the GMC comes as a poll it conducted earlier this year found that GPs were twice as likely as other professionals to quit their roles due to fears around making errors or being exposed to medico-legal risk.
Dame Carrie said she was ‘acutely aware of how much pressure’ the profession was under as it moved towards a ‘challenging winter period’. She said: ‘We've all had to get comfortable with change over the last 18 months or so - as change has become the status quo.
‘As doctors, we've gone from wrestling with the implications of a new and deadly disease, to trying to effectively treat it and then to rolling out the vaccine that helps guard against it. Now the sands have shifted again, as we contend with the care backlog and continuous high demand that are characterising this new phase of the pandemic.
‘We know that the environment in which a doctor practises has a material impact on the care they provide. In the fluid and unpredictable context of a pandemic, this link is especially acute. That's why I want to reassure you that any concerns raised about a doctor over this time will take into account the extraordinary circumstances we are, and have been, living through.'
A recent GMC poll about doctors leaving the profession found that GPs were much more likely to experience worry about errors or medico-legal risks (24%) compared with specialists (10%).
Another survey conducted by the Medical Protection Society (MPS) in February found that more than three quarters of GPs feared the COVID-19 pandemic would leave them facing investigations triggered by factors outside their control, such as delayed referrals or disruption to services.
Head of the medical division at the MDDUS Dr Naeem Nazem welcomed the GMC's assurance that context would be considered during investigations. He said: 'We must ensure doctors have peace of mind that they will be treated fairly in the case of a complaint or regulatory process relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Our members worked for more than 18 months under unprecedented pressure, and they must not be left exposed, especially if as we suspect we only begin to see complaints surfacing two or three years after the pandemic when the reality of the crisis it created has dulled.'
The MDDUS has been calling on healthcare regulators and governments across the UK to commission an expert and independent report to consider the complexities of the pandemic on regulatory and legal processes.