MPs back campaign against reforms that 'threaten fairness of fitness to practise cases'

Plans to scrap the 'five-year rule' and categorise doctors with health concerns as lacking 'competence' threaten to undermine the fairness of fitness to practise investigations, MPs have warned the health secretary.

Dr Dan Poulter and Dr Philippa Whitford (Photos: UK government; Alex Todd/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)
Dr Dan Poulter and Dr Philippa Whitford (Photos: UK government; Alex Todd/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)

Under plans to reform healthcare regulation in England set out by the government in March, doctors with health concerns who face investigation will be categorised as having ‘a lack of competence’.

Proposed changes would also remove the 'five-year rule', which stops the GMC from investigating allegations more than five years old unless doing so is in the public interest.

However, two MPs who are also doctors - Dr Dan Poulter and Dr Philippa Whitford - have joined medical defence organisation the MDDUS in warning that the changes are potentially ‘damaging’ and ‘threaten the fairness’ of GMC investigations.

Health regulation reforms

MDDUS chief medical officer Dr John Holden insisted that failure to scrap these proposals could lead to ‘serious unintended consequences’ for the rights of doctors at a time when they are already under immense pressure.

It comes as a survey by the medico-legal organisation found that almost half of its members are suffering increased stress and anxiety after working through the pandemic - and more than half are considering quitting or retiring early.

In a letter to health and social care secretary Sajid Javid, the MPs argued that removing health issues as a reason for an investigation by the professional regulator into a doctor’s fitness to practise would deny them a defence on reasons related to health.

They said: ‘It is not appropriate for health to be placed into the same ground as competency and is extremely problematic in terms of the way in which sensitive health issues are viewed, especially in the immediate aftermath of lockdown and the peak of COVID-19.

Practitioner wellbeing

‘FtP investigations are particularly stressful for registrants, particularly when mental health issues are involved, and health cases should be dealt with sensitively, rather than suggesting incompetence.’

They added: ‘Secondly, the proposal to remove GMC policies on investigating allegations over five years old is of grave concern to healthcare professionals across the UK and runs the risk of a dramatic increase in FtP proceedings against doctors for historic complaints.’

Conservative MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich Dr Poulter said: ‘The proposals on the table to reform the GMC are generally very welcome, so it is disappointing and concerning they include two proposals that put in jeopardy the principle that FtP investigations are both fair and concluded faster.

‘In the immediate aftermath of COVID-19 it is absolutely vital that cases brought under health grounds are dealt with sensitively and appropriately.

Pandemic pressures

SNP MP for Central Ayrshire Dr Philippa Whitford said: ‘These two proposals are of grave concern and threaten the fairness of FtP investigations. The health of our workforce is a very important and live issue, and to categorise health as a lack of competence would be an inappropriate and damaging way to view sensitive health issues.’

Dr Holden added: ‘We are working with Dr Poulter and Dr Whitford and hope the health secretary will urgently reconsider these proposals to ensure fairness in investigations and confidence for healthcare professionals. Failure to abandon these proposals could lead to serious unintended consequences for the rights of doctors at a time when they are already facing considerable pressure.’

Medico-legal experts have already warned that the reforms could lead to unfair treatment of doctors who are ill and drive up investigations into historic complaints.

The GMC recently called for ‘greater autonomy’ to choose the complaints it investigates, to help combat ‘shameful’ bias against ethnic minority doctors following the publication of the government's proposals.

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