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Monday, 28 September, 1998, 15:15 GMT 16:15 UK
Doctors 'more open about failings'
Doctors face increased scrutiny of their work
A massive rise in the number of doctors suspended is due to an increased willingness in doctors to admit their colleagues are flawed, it has been claimed.

Earlier this month BBC News online discovered that the number of doctors suspended from work pending complaints had risen dramatically since the General Medical Council hearing into the Bristol heart babies case ended in June.

The Medical Defence Union estimates that suspensions have risen 10-fold since than.

Many of the cases resulted from complaints made by colleagues.

Speaking on the BBC's Today programme, Stephen Thornton, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said that the rise was not an over-reaction.

Poor performance

"I take heart from this," he said.

"It shows growing openness in the NHS since the Bristol case and willingness by doctors to confront the poor performance of their colleagues and actually do something about it."

Stephen Thornton grab
Stephen Thornton: "I take heart from this"
Mr Thornton also welcomed the way the suspensions were occurring.

He said: "In the vast majority of these circumstances it is not NHS managers that take the action, it is doctors.

"It is other doctors who raise concerns about their colleagues.

"In light of the Bristol case I think people are being very responsible about this and I think this shows benefits for patient care in the long run."

Revised guidelines

Following the case the GMC issued revised guidance for doctors on when they should raise concerns about a colleague's performance.

Maintaining Good Medical Practice explains to doctors exactly when they should take action if a colleague's performance becomes so poor it puts patients' lives at risk.

Dr Peter Schutte, deputy head of the Medical Defence Union's advisory service, previously said the stricter guidance was responsible for the rise in suspensions.

A spokeswoman for the GMC said that the council would be taking steps to quantify the impact of the guidance.

It plans to tour UK hospitals in 1999 to establish how successful its measures have been.

The project will not collect specific figures on complaints and suspensions, but it will seek to gather the views of doctors, managers and patients.

She said: "It is difficult to say if the guidance is having a direct effect.

"But if our new guidance is proving useful and effective then that is to be welcomed."

Unexplained suspensions

However, the MDU remains concerned that some doctors are not being told why they are being suspended.

Dr Schutte said: "There are one or two instances where doctors are being suspended without even being told why they are being suspended.

"That is not in accord with a culture of openness and transparency which is what we are all aiming for."

He warned that patients might suffer in such circumstances.

"Patient welfare is the single most important thing," he said.

"But if we do not have a system that is seen as fair by everybody then that is not going to be in the best interests of patient welfare at the end of the day."

Counter productive

The Patients' Association expressed surprise at the scale of the rise in suspensions but welcomed the general "opening up" of the system.

However, Eve Richardson, chief executive of the association, warned that over-reaction could prove counter-productive.

She said: "It is good that doctors are reporting on other doctors but we have to be careful that it is done in the right way.

"We have to get confidence from all angles and if there is an over-reaction it could swing back the other way."

BBC News
Dr Peter Schutte talks to the BBC's Sue McGregor: "Doctors suspended without explanation"
See also:

08 Jul 98 | Health
16 Jul 98 | Health
15 Mar 99 | The Bristol heart babies
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