Friday, November 12, 1999 Published at 01:43 GMT
Extra powers to tackle bad doctors
Patient complaints can trigger the process
Health Secretary Alan Milburn is to give health authorities the power to instantly suspend GPs in a further crackdown on doctors who perform poorly.
The move is the latest to beef up medical regulation in the wake of high-profile scandals over recent years.
Health Secretary Alan Milburn told BBC One's Breakfast News that he was "not prepared to turn a blind eye to poor performance" and wanted to "nip any problems in the bud".
He added that patients needed to be reassured that they would get the highest standards of treatment.
He said: "The vast majority of NHS doctors are excellent. Many are the finest in the world. But I am determined that the very small minority of poor doctors do not tarnish the reputation of the medical profession as a whole.
"The present arrangements for dealing with poor performance and allegations of poor clinical performance do not serve the interests of the patients, doctors or the NHS as a whole and need to be modernised."
However, although GPs are paid through fees claimed from health authorities, they are in theory self-employed, and existing disciplinary procedures are slow.
The new powers would allow health authorities to step in as soon as they believed that patients were at risk.
They are bound to be deeply controversial with GPs, who value their relative independence from health authorities.
Dr Peter Holden, a GP member of the British Medical Association team which negotiates with the government, said that while patient safety was "of paramount importance", a family doctor could be severely hit financially if suspended - even if later cleared.
He said: "Normally if you are suspended you are paid during the period of the suspension.
"Because of the way that GPs are paid, if they are suspended, you will get nothing, even if your name is later cleared.
"And if a GP isn't paid, then neither are the staff, including the locum doctor who needs to be brought in to look after the patients."
The consultation paper has been tabled following a critical report by the government's chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, who was asked by Mr Milburn's predecessor, Frank Dobson, to examine existing powers that the NHS could use to tackle poorly-performing doctors.
He found that the current system was "fragmented and inflexible".
Professor Donaldson said: "These proposals seek to set out a new system in which everyone concerned - the profession, their regulatory bodies, the NHS and the public - can work together to ensure the very highest standards of care.
"Early intervention is the key to protecting patients."
Complaints from patients
The health authority's action could be triggered by either a patient complaint, or problems revealed by audit of the doctor's work.
Doctors who were suspended could be offered retraining at an "assessment and support centre", he said.
At the moment, the only body with power to suspend GPs from practice is the General Medical Council (GMC), the profession's own disciplinary body.
It is also seeing to increase regulation with a system of "revalidation", in which doctors will have to prove their continuing competence once every four or five years to be allowed to carry on working.