The guidance sets out how all doctors should communicate concerns and how they can act as witnesses in court. The GMC found that doctors often were being deterred from raising concerns due to fear of parental complaints and high-profile cases.
GMC chief executive Niall Dickson said: ‘Doctors have a right to be cautious but, unless they have a compelling reason not to, they must share their concerns with the appropriate individuals.’
The guidance says: ‘It is vital that all doctors have the confidence to act if they believe that a child or young person is being abused or neglected.’
GMC chairman Sir Peter Rubin said it is essential for all doctors, even those who do not work with children, to communicate any concerns.
‘Many reports over the years have highlighted issues to do with health and social care not communicating with each other,’ he said.
‘I can see how a doctor who never sees children could overlook their responsibility if they have a suspicion that something is not right. We are giving the doctor the green light to raise these concerns in the right way.’
Mr Dickson said doctors should not be deterred from raising concerns about parents putting their children at risk.
‘If a patient has a certain medical condition or chaotic lifestyle that could be harmful to a child then they should bring it to the attention of the right people.’
He added that ‘by doing this you are not saying that this person is abusing a child, you are simply raising a concern’.
Mr Dickson also said doctors who make child protection decisions based on the guidance would help protect themselves against any future complaints.
‘Doctors will be able to justify their actions if a complaint is made against them, provided their conclusions are honestly held and have been pursued in the appropriate channels.’
The guidance updates advice issued by the GMC in 2006, giving additional information on how doctors should communicate their concerns of child abuse in a legal and ethical way.
New guidance is also given to help doctors understand their role, decide where to seek help, know when it is right to carry out a child protection examination and be clear about their duties to the court if they have to act as a witness.
Mr Dickson said GPs in particular play a ‘pivotal role’ in protecting children from abuse and neglect due to their relationship with family members and should therefore ‘do as much as possible to improve child protection such as joining local support groups’.
Responding to the advice, the Medical Defence Union (MDU) said handling child abuse is one of the ‘most difficult dilemmas for doctors’.
MDU medico-legal adviser Dr Catherine Wills said: ‘Child abuse is an emotive, sensitive and often very difficult issue for doctors to deal with.’
She added: ‘Our advice to them is that their first responsibility is to the child and the child’s interests should take precedence over those of parents or carers.’