The GMC statement came as it spoke out strongly against junior doctors' plans for industrial action, calling the scale of action planned in five-day strikes over the next four months 'unjustified' and likely to harm patients.
GMC chairman Professor Terence Stephenson warned that it was ‘hard to see’ how the ‘prolonged campaign of industrial action’ could be done without harm and suffering coming to patients.
He urged junior doctors to ‘pause and consider the implications for patients’ before taking action.
GMC chief executive Niall Dickson added that the GMC would be obliged to ‘investigate and take appropriate action’ if it was ‘presented with evidence that a doctor’s actions may have directly led to a patient or patients coming to significant harm’.
The BMA announced last week that it would escalate strike action against the proposed junior doctor contract – set to be introduced next month – with a wave of all-out, five-day strikes once a month until the end of the year. The first five-day strike is set to begin on 12 September.
Junior doctor strikes
In advice given to those contemplating industrial action, the GMC said: ‘Given the scale and repeated nature of what is proposed, we believe that, despite everyone’s best efforts, patients will suffer. In light of this, the right option may be not to take action that results in the withdrawal of services for patients.’
Mr Dickson said: ‘The duties of a doctor are set out in Good medical practice, which says that doctors must make the care of their patient their first concern.
‘Parliament has not fettered the right of doctors to take industrial action, unlike some other professions and occupations. Doctors therefore have a right to strike and take industrial action.
‘The question each doctor must ask, however, before taking action is whether what they are proposing to do is likely to cause significant harm to patients under his or her care or who otherwise would have come under his or her care. This is a matter of professional duty and we expect each doctor to comply with it.
‘This advice is issued under the authority of the 1983 Medical Act which governs the behaviour of all doctors practising in the UK. The Act and the accompanying guidance require doctors to exercise their professional responsibilities in the interests of their patients, to put their patients first and protect them from harm.
‘The GMC has powers under the Act to investigate and apply sanctions to any doctor whose behaviour has fallen consistently or seriously below the standards required. Where we are presented with evidence that a doctor’s actions may have directly led to a patient or patients coming to significant harm, we would be obliged to investigate and if necessary take appropriate action.’
Professor Stephenson said: ‘We recognise the frustration and alienation of doctors in training and indeed their legal right to take industrial action. However, we are extremely concerned about the impact which this prolonged campaign of industrial action will have on patients’ care and on the public’s trust in doctors.
‘The further action announced by the BMA will inevitably add to the cumulative impact of past industrial action on patients’ care. Further, the BMA’s announcement marks a substantial escalation of the previous industrial action […] and much shorter notice to NHS employers of the first bout of action which leaves little time to prepare.
‘The health service is under huge pressure. During previous industrial action all doctors went to considerable lengths to make sure that patients continued to receive a good and safe level of care. We know that doctors will again want to do their utmost to reduce the risk of harm and suffering to patients.
‘However, for the reasons given above, it is hard to see how this can be avoided this time around. To suggest otherwise would be a disservice to the enormous contribution made by doctors in training to the care and treatment of NHS patients every day.
‘We therefore do not believe that the scale of action planned at such short notice can be justified and we are now calling on every doctor in training to pause and consider the implications for patients.’
A BMA spokeswoman said: ‘Patient safety remains doctors’ priority and since the announcement last week of further action, the BMA has been liaising with NHS leaders so that plans can be put in place swiftly to minimise disruption for patients.
‘This action is still avoidable. The BMA has said it will call off next week’s action if the government puts a halt to plans to force junior doctors to work under a contract they have rejected because they don’t believe it is good for the future of patient care or the profession.’