A patients' guide to good medical practice

What are the professional standards for doctors?

The General Medical Council (GMC) set the values, knowledge, skills, and behaviours expected of all doctors working in the UK. Our main guidance is called Good medical practice. We also have more detailed guidance in areas such as confidentiality and consent. 

The professional standards apply to all doctors wherever they work. We expect doctors to use their professional judgement to apply them to their specific circumstances. 

Doctors have to follow our standards throughout their careers. That is why our standards are embedded in education and annual appraisals.

How should my doctor treat me?

Decisions about your care

You can expect doctors to treat you fairly, with kindness, courtesy, and respect – respecting your dignity and treating you as an individual. It’s important that they listen to you and work with you to assess your needs and priorities, and propose care based on this assessment.

They must share clear and accurate information with you to support you to:

  • understand your condition(s) 
  • understand the care options available, including the option to take no action
  • make informed decisions about your care.

It’s important that doctors get your consent (or, if you don’t have capacity, valid authority) before you are examined or treated. If they want to involve you in teaching or research, they’ll also need to get your consent.

No doctor can know everything. They will seek advice from colleagues where appropriate, and refer you to another suitably qualified practitioner if needed. They may also ask you about any other care or treatment you’re receiving, and check that any care or treatment they are suggesting or giving is compatible with it.

If you feel your doctor has not made the right diagnosis or is not offering the right treatment, you can ask for a second opinion.

Eg for children, the parent’s consent, for adults without capacity, the authority of someone with legal power of attorney etc. or Court Order, or in the absence of those things, or in an emergency, the proposed examination, treatment is in the patient’s best interests (of benefit in Scotland).

What do we mean by being fair to patients?

  • Discrimination has no place in healthcare. You can expect your doctor not to allow their personal views to affect your relationship with them, or the treatment they provide or arrange.
  • If you have a condition that puts other people at risk, you’re still entitled to care. There are steps doctors can take, such as wearing gloves or masks – to minimise the risk you pose to their health or safety. If they still can’t treat you themselves, they will make alternative arrangements for you to access the care you need.
  • If a doctor can decide who to treat first, you can expect them to give priority to patients based on their clinical need. They won’t refuse or delay treatment because they believe that your actions or choices contributed to your condition.
  • If a doctor doesn’t want to provide a particular procedure (eg because of a religious or other personal belief they hold), they can’t stand in the way of you accessing it if it’s appropriate and meets your needs. They don’t have to directly refer you to someone who’ll provide the procedure. But they need to make sure you know how to access the procedure from another service or practitioner.

What do we mean by treating patients with kindness, courtesy and respect?

  • You can expect your doctor to communicate sensitively and considerately, particularly when sharing information about your diagnosis and care. This doesn’t mean withholding relevant information that may be upsetting or unwelcome.
  • It’s important that doctors recognise your knowledge and experience of your health, and acknowledge your concerns. By listening to you and not making assumptions about what you find important, they can support you to understand and make decisions about your care.
  • We don’t expect doctors to agree to every request, but we do expect them to explain the reason for the options they offer.
  • Doctors have to consider that you may be vulnerable, even if you don’t seem it.
  • Whether or not a cure may be possible, it’s important that doctors take your pain and distress seriously and take steps to make you feel comfortable and safe.

Meeting your individual needs

It's important that you and your doctor understand each other so that you can make informed decisions about your care. 

You can expect doctors to ask you what support you need. This includes any language or communication needs you have. The steps they take to meet your needs will depend on the seriousness and urgency of the situation, and the availability of resources, such as interpreters.
Doctors must provide a good standard of care, and this applies to face to face or remote consultations (eg telephone, video link, or other online services). 
Different specialties and clinics have their own rules on when they offer face to face or remote consultations. But if it’s not possible to safely complete the consultation using one method, it’s important they offer you another method that is safe. For example, in a phone GP consultation, if your doctor needs to assess a skin condition, they could ask you to upload photos. 

If a disability means you need a face-to-face appointment, they should offer you one if they are able to do so. If that’s not possible, they should let you know where you can access one (eg another doctor at the practice or another practice). 

Vulnerable people

If a doctor suspects you may be vulnerable, it’s important that they:

  • consider your needs and welfare
  • act promptly if they have concerns that you – or someone close to you – may be at risk of abuse or neglect, or is being abused or neglected. For example they may need to contact safeguarding leads.

Making records and sharing information

Medical records that are clear, accurate, and written at the time of the consultation support your ongoing care. 

Your doctor may need to share your personal information with colleagues or other health or social care providers. So, it's important that your doctor provides all relevant information – including any reasonable adjustments and communication support preferences. Where practical, they will check someone has taken over responsibility for your care.

You can expect that your records will be held confidentially, and only shared with colleagues to make sure you get the care you need. In general practice, for example, reception staff may manage repeat prescriptions and do other tasks that mean they need to see your records. 

If you don’t want some information to be shared by your doctor you should speak to them. Information can be left out if it’s safe to do so. But if your doctor thinks they need to share the information for you to get the right care, they should explain this to you.

Will my doctor talk to my family or friends about my treatment and care?

Medical information is confidential, and you can expect doctors to protect your personal information. 

Doctors will usually get your consent before talking about your care with people who are close to you. This is especially important if you could be at risk of harm if those close to you were to know about your care.

If you are not able to make decisions for yourself, or want those close to you to help you make decisions, doctors can talk to them about your care.

What other responsibilities do doctors have?

Standards of behaviour

It’s essential that patients can trust their doctors. To justify your trust in them and their profession, doctors need to act with honesty and integrity. For example by:

  • being honest about their experience, qualifications, and current role
  • being honest in financial and commercial dealings
  • putting the interests of participants first when designing, organising, or carrying out research.

Because doctors hold a trusted position in society, it’s important that they think about the power they hold and don’t abuse that trust. For example, they must not:

  • take advantage of your lack of medical knowledge when communicating as a medical professional
  • act in a sexual way or use their professional position to pursue a sexual or improper emotional relationship with you or someone close to you
  • talk about their personal beliefs (including political, religious, and moral beliefs) in ways that take advantage of your vulnerability or could reasonably cause you distress  abuse, discriminate against, or bully you or another patient.

Maintaining skills and knowledge

It’s important that doctors follow guidance and standards, and work within their competence. And we expect doctors to keep their knowledge and skills up to date throughout their career.

Training the next generation of doctors is a key part of any healthcare system and doctors are expected to share knowledge and skills with colleagues. This could be formally or informally. 

Medical students cannot learn all they need to know from books and will, at times, be part of the team. If for any reason you would prefer not to help in medical student training, you have the right to decline.

Conflicts of interest

When a doctor proposes, provides or prescribes treatment, or refers you to another specialty, it’s important that you can trust that your doctor is not putting their own interests before yours.

There are times when a doctor will have interests that could affect the way they provide treatments or refer patients, or the way they communicate as a medical professional. When this happens, doctors need to be open and honest about their interest. And, if faced with a conflict of interest, they may need to exclude themselves from making a decision.

Communicating as a medical professional

Any information doctors communicate as a medical professional – including using social media and advertising or promoting services or products – needs to be accurate, and not false or misleading. This means doctors are expected to:

  • take reasonable steps to check the information is accurate
  • not deliberately leave out relevant information or understate risks of harm
  • not present opinion as established fact.

If you want to know a doctor’s registered name and/or GMC reference number, you can ask them for this information.

In an emergency

In an emergency, like a car accident, doctors are often in a good position to help. But what help they offer will depend on their skills and any other options that are available. For example, if the doctor isn’t competent in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), they may instead call an ambulance.

What should doctors do if something goes wrong?

If a doctor is concerned about safety

If a doctor thinks there’s a patient safety risk, there are steps they have to take.

  • If it’s possible to put the matter right, they should do so – for example, by making sure the patient’s basic needs are met. 
  • Use local reporting systems to report their concern.
  • Ask for advice if they are concerned that a colleague may not be fit to practise. If they are still concerned, it’s important that they report this.

What can patients do to support a safer healthcare system?

All doctors have an annual appraisal to review their performance and identify areas where they can develop their practice. 

At least once every five years, doctors also have to seek formal feedback from their patients. You can help doctors to improve their practice by completing questionnaires honestly and fairly.

If you see anything that you feel could put you – or someone else – at risk, tell a doctor, nurse or another health professional.

If you have suspected medicine side effects tell your doctor. They will report it through the yellow card scheme, helping the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) monitor the safety of all healthcare products in the UK.

If you are concerned about something your doctor has done, you can make a complaint. Usually you should complain locally – to your GP practice or local hospital. If you are not satisfied with the response, you can raise your concerns through local NHS procedures or with local patient organisations, such as:

If you have a serious concern about a doctor, you can raise it with us.

If something goes wrong with your care

If things go wrong:

  • you can expect your doctor to be open and honest with you 
  • if it’s possible to put matters right, they should do so 
  • whether or not your doctor can put matters right you can expect them to apologise and explain what happened (apologising does not, of itself, mean that your doctor is admitting legal liability for what’s happened).
  • you can also expect your doctor to report the incident.

If there’s a complaint or inquiry about a doctor

If a concern is raised with us about a doctor, we’re legally required to assess if they may pose any current and ongoing risk to public protection. We do this by considering the doctor’s overall ability to perform their role, their professional and personal behaviour, and the impact of any health condition on their ability to provide safe care to patients. 

Our assessment includes looking at if a doctor has departed from the professional standards and if so, the extent of that departure. This doesn’t mean that if a doctor hasn’t met a professional standard we would always need to act. Once we’ve assessed the risk to public protection, we’ll need to consider if regulatory action may be required in response to the concern. 

You can read more about how we assess and respond to fitness to practise concerns.

If there’s a complaint, investigation or inquiry about a doctor’s practice you can expect them to respond promptly, fully and honestly to support the investigation to find out what happened and whether changes can stop it happening again.

Your doctor mustn’t let a complaint affect the care or treatment they provide or arrange for you.

Doctors should only end a professional relationship with you if the breakdown of trust means they can’t continue to provide you with good clinical care.

Note: This guide has been prepared for patients – it is not formal guidance for doctors. Doctors must follow the standards and principles set out in the professional standards.