New research reveals significant numbers are experiencing suicidal thoughts or quitting medicine as a result of their investigation.

In a Medical Protection survey of nearly 200 doctors who have been investigated by the medical regulator in the last five years, 78% said the investigation had a detrimental impact on their mental health and 91% said it caused stress and anxiety.

In the survey, 69% of doctors said the length of the investigation impacted on their mental health most, with some lasting years. 64% said the tone of communications from the GMC affected them most. Doctors commenting anonymously spoke of a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ tone in the initial GMC letter.

Dr Rob Hendry, Medical Director at Medical Protection, said:

“We understand the GMC exists to protect the public, and must investigate serious complaints. But there is no reason why it cannot operate and communicate with doctors under investigation with more compassion. Finding out your fitness to practise is being called into question can be devastating, and it is easy to see how quickly a doctor’s mental health could deteriorate if they feel they are considered ‘guilty’ from the outset.

“The GMC has made many improvements to its initial communication with doctors, but more is needed. For example, the first letter to a doctor could alleviate some anxiety by setting out the GMC’s legal requirement to investigate all complaints and its policy for dealing with any malicious complaints – which are a huge source of stress for doctors and can take months to resolve.

“The language in the GMC letter and case examiners report when an investigation has been closed with no further action, can also have a detrimental effect on a doctor’s mental health. Many felt it implied ‘we’ll get you next time’ and I have heard doctors describe this as feeling like they have the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

“Above all else however, the Government and the GMC must ensure fewer doctors are dragged through this extremely stressful process unnecessarily. For the Government this means progressing GMC reform with urgency to give the regulator more discretion to not take forward investigations where allegations clearly do not require action.

“Reform should also reduce the number of doctors who are pursued by the GMC on the vague and ill-defined basis that action will ‘protect public confidence in the profession’, when investigations should surely be focussed on doctors who potentially pose a risk to patient safety.  

“The GMC also needs to communicate more clearly that it has been set up to deal with serious concerns, to help reduce the large number of referrals it receives about doctors that do not come close to requiring a sanction.

“One doctor quitting medicine, or worse, experiencing suicidal thoughts due to a GMC investigation is one too many – the GMC and the Government must take every possible step to address this issue.”

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