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The BBC's Fergus Walsh reports
"The GMC have no power to suspend Harold Shipman"
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GMC lay member Sue Leggatt
'It is about protecting patients'
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Wednesday, 9 February, 2000, 17:26 GMT
GMC promises radical reform

gmc GMC tightens its rules on doctors

The General Medical Council (GMC) is to ask ministers for powers to suspend doctors while they are under investigation.

Members agreed to the move on Wednesday in a bid to tackle cases where doctors considered a threat to patients are allowed to continue practising.

It is part of a fundamental review of the structure and powers of the GMC ordered by doctors in a move widely interpreted as an attempt to restore public confidence in the ability of the medical profession to regulate itself in the wake of the Shipman murder case and the Bristol heart babies scandal.

The GMC had no powers to suspend GP Harold Shipman, who was last week convicted of 15 murders of female patients, while he was under police investigation.

The GMC will now ask the Department of Health, which is known to be in favour of tightening up controls on doctors, for new legislation to bring in the change.

It is a new deal between medicine and society
Sir Donald Irvine, GMC president
Under existing rules, doctors who are being investigated by police or face investigation about their professional performance cannot be given an interim suspension from the medical register while an inquiry is carried out.

Suspension would be used where it is "necessary in the public interest or in the doctor's own interest", the GMC decided.

GMC president Sir Donald Irvine outlined other proposed changes which include:

  • An extension the period before which a struck off doctor can apply to practise again from ten months to three years
  • A closure of the loophole that allows doctors who have been struck to continue practising pending appeal
  • An increase in lay membership of the GMC

However, doctors will remain in the majority in disciplinary committees.

Culture change

Sir Donald has called for a culture change in the GMC and called the laws surrounding suspension "arcane".

Commenting on the proposed changes, he said: "This is the most ambitious programme of modernisation we have ever undertaken.

"It is a changed attitude towards patients, the nature of the doctor-patient relationship, and how we and the public fit together - a new deal between medicine and society."

GMC council member Dr Krishna Korlipara welcomed the move to suspend doctors under investigation. He said: "We are mindful of the potential miscarriages of justice if it is used indiscriminately, but we are also mindful of the potential harm to patients and the doctor himself."

Fellow GMC member Dr Edwin Borman said: "The challenge now is for the government to provide the parliamentary time to implement this speedily."

As a statutory body, changes to GMC rules require legislation to be passed in Parliament.

Doctors who are suspended will be moved to the front of the queue of those waiting to have their cases heard by the GMC's professional conduct committee - there is currently a backlog of 160 cases.

And the GMC will seek powers to co-opt people onto its committees - both members of the medical profession and lay people - to speed up the process.

A Consumers' Association survey found widespread dissatisfaction with the way doctors handle complaints against their colleagues.

Sally Williams, of the Consumers Association, said: "There is a perception by a lot of the public that the GMC works to protect the interests of doctors, and not of patients.

"A lot of the people we spoke to talked of an old boy's network. It really must have public confidence if it is going to work."

The review will be completed by the autumn.

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See also:
01 Feb 00 |  Health
Dealing with criminal doctors
08 Feb 00 |  Health
GMC may close danger doctor loophole
12 Nov 99 |  Health
Extra powers to tackle bad doctors
01 Sep 99 |  Health
Two suspended in waiting list inquiry

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