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GMC appoints former mental health tsar to improve its support for vulnerable doctors

Press Release

03 Dec 2015

The General Medical Council (GMC) has appointed one of the UK’s leading mental health experts to provide independent advice on how it can support vulnerable doctors.

We have already made considerable progress in this area over the last 12 months but we know we cannot stop there.

Professor Terence Stephenson, Chair of the General Medical Council

Professor Louis Appleby will help the GMC review its fitness to practise investigations following the publication of an independent review in December 2014.

The review, commissioned by the GMC, made several recommendations to improve its procedures when dealing with doctors who may be at risk of taking their own lives.

One recommendation which is already being implemented was to change the language and tone of the letters which GMC sends to doctors as part of its investigations. New letters will be introduced early next year following a review which involved the BMA, the medical defence organisations, and the Practitioner Health Programme.

Professor Appleby now will work with the GMC to review every stage of its investigation process to identify what further changes could be made to support vulnerable doctors.

Professor Terence Stephenson, Chair of the General Medical Council, said:

‘Over the course of my career I have twice been complained about to the GMC so I know first-hand how difficult the process can be. We are determined to do everything we can to reduce the pressure and anxiety for all doctors in our procedures, particularly where there are health concerns. It will always be a stressful experience but we want to offer whatever support we can to help them through the process. We have already made considerable progress in this area over the last 12 months but we know we cannot stop there.

‘Professor Appleby’s impartial advice will be extremely valuable in helping us pinpoint the parts of our procedures that could be more sensitive and compassionate to the needs of these doctors.

‘We are delighted that he has agreed to take on this important post.’

Professor Louis Appleby said:

'Suicides by doctors facing investigation by the GMC are tragic evidence of the distress that may be experienced in these circumstances.

‘I will be helping the GMC examine how it deals with doctors who may be vulnerable or at risk, to ensure it does everything possible to support them, while fulfilling its over-riding duty to protect patients and the public.'

Professor Appleby will share his proposals at a special workshop with those who have an interest in this area in the Spring of next year.

Professor Appleby is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Manchester where he leads a group of more than 30 researchers at the Centre for Mental Health and Safety.

He was England’s National Clinical Director for Mental Health between 2000 and 2010. During this time he published a report which highlighted the need for healthcare systems to improve their support for doctors with mental health issues. He also developed the National Suicide Prevention Strategy for England which focuses on support for families and prevention of suicide among at-risk groups, including the medical profession.

The GMC held a roundtable event in the summer of 2015 to discuss the recommendation made by the independent review to establish a national support service for doctors. A report of the event has been shared with the four health departments of the UK and NHS England. Following this event, NHS England announced that it would establish from April 2016 a new nationally-specified occupational health service for GPs suffering from burnout and stress, in partnership with the Royal College of GPs and the BMA’s General Practitioners Committee. The GMC has agreed to be part of a programme board set up to take forward the development of this service.

Notes to editors

  • The GMC commissioned an independent review of those cases where doctors died from suicide while under fitness to practise procedures between 2005 (when the GMC introduced electronic data systems) and 2013. The aim of the review was to establish whether the GMC’s processes could be improved to reduce the impact on vulnerable doctors and whether more could be done to prevent these tragedies from occurring in future.
  • The independent report makes eight recommendations relating to the GMC’s processes and procedures. We have published an action plan that seeks to address these recommendations and are currently progressing them.
  • On 2 September 2015 NHS England announced it would be establishing a new nationally-specified occupational health service for GPs as part of a £5 million initiative to improve health in the NHS workplace. The service is being developed in partnership with the Royal College of GPs and the BMA’s General Practitioners Committee.

The General Medical Council (GMC) is an independent organisation that helps to protect patients and improve medical education and practice across the UK.

  • We decide which doctors are qualified to work here and we oversee UK medical education and training.
  • We set the standards that doctors need to follow, and make sure that they continue to meet these standards throughout their careers.
  • We take action when we believe a doctor may be putting the safety of patients, or the public’s confidence in doctors, at risk.

We are not here to protect doctors – their interests are protected by others. Our job is to protect the public.

We are independent of government and the medical profession and accountable to Parliament. Our powers are given to us by Parliament through the Medical Act 1983.

We are a registered charity (number 1089278 with the Charity Commission for England and Wales, and number SC037750 with the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator), we have to show that our aims are for public benefit.

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