Protecting children and young people: The responsibilities of all doctors

About our Protecting children and young people guidance

All children and young people1  are entitled to protection from abuse and neglect. Good medical practice2  places a duty on all doctors to protect and promote the health and well-being of children and young people. This means all doctors must act on any concerns they have about the safety or welfare of a child or young person.

Child protection is a difficult area of practice that can involve making decisions that are emotionally challenging, complicated by uncertainty and sometimes go against the wishes of parents.3  Doctors should work with parents and families, where possible, to make sure that children and young people receive the care and support they need. But in cases where the interests and wishes of parents may put the safety of the child or young person at risk, doctors must put the interests of the child or young person first.4  Failure to act when a child or young person is at risk can have serious consequences for both the child and their family.

This guidance aims to help doctors to protect children and young people who are living with their families or living away from home, including those being looked after by a local authority.

In this guidance ‘abuse or neglect’ means physical, emotional or sexual abuse, including fabricated or induced illness, and emotional or physical neglect, which has led, or may lead, to significant harm to a child or young person. 5  6  7  

All doctors have a duty to keep up to date with, and follow, the relevant laws, codes of practice and guidance, including our advice in Good medical practice2  and 0–18 years: guidance for all doctors8  and our guidance on Confidentiality: good practice in handling patient information9  and consent.10  These guidance provide more advice on assessing capacity, and making decisions about treatment relating to the health of children and young people.

In this guidance, which forms part of the professional standards, the terms ‘you must’ and ‘you should’ are used in the following ways.

  • ‘You must’ is used for a legal or ethical duty you’re expected to meet (or be able to justify why you didn’t). 
  • 'You should’ is used for duties or principles that either:
    • may not apply to you or to the situation you’re currently in, or
    • you may not be able to comply with because of factors outside your control

It is vital that all doctors have the confidence to act if they believe that a child or young person may be being abused or neglected. Taking action will be justified, even if it turns out that the child or young person is not at risk of, or suffering, abuse or neglect, as long as the concerns are honestly held and reasonable, and the doctor takes action through appropriate channels. Doctors who make decisions based on the principles in this guidance will be able to justify their decisions and actions if we receive a complaint about their practice.11 


This guidance is concerned with children and young people from birth until their 18th birthday (see the definitions of children, young people and parents of this guidance).


General Medical Council (2013) Good medical practice London, General Medical Council, paragraph 42.


References to ‘parents’ in this guidance include people who care for or look after children or young people. This might include carers, other family members or adults who live in the same household (see the definitions of ‘children’, ‘young people’ and ‘parents’ of this guidance).


Department for Children, Schools and Families (2018) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children Nottingham, HM Government.


The Scottish Government (2021) National guidance for child protection in Scotland 2021 Edinburgh, The Scottish Government.


Area Child Protection Committees (2005) Regional child protection policy and procedures area Child Protection Committees.


General Medical Council (2013) Good medical practice London, General Medical Council, paragraph 42.


General Medical Council (2007) 0–18 years: guidance for all doctors London, General Medical Council.


General Medical Council (2017) Confidentiality: good practice in handling patient information London, General Medical Council.


General Medical Council (2020) Decision making and consent,  London, General Medical Council.


The professional standards describe good practice, and not every departure from them will be considered serious. You must use your professional judgement to apply the standards to your day-to-day practice. If you do this, act in good faith and in the interests of patients, you will be able to explain and justify your decisions and actions. We say more about professional judgement, and how the professional standards relate to our fitness to practise processes, appraisal and revalidation, at the beginning of Good medical practice.