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Feature Regulation and Doctors’ Health

GMC and vulnerable doctors: too blunt an instrument?

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 22 October 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6230
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. 1BMJ, London, UK
  1. claredyer4{at}

The deaths of almost 100 doctors while under GMC investigation over the past decade has raised questions about the stress and fear associated with the process. Clare Dyer reports on the regulator’s moves to soften its harsh image. But is it going far enough?

Mary O’Rourke QC recalls the time a doctor threatened to jump out of a seventh floor window at the General Medical Council’s building while she was defending him on misconduct charges. The consultant paediatrician, who was in his mid-60s, displayed Asperger’s traits and had had recurrent depressive episodes, anxiety, obsessional tendencies, and thoughts of suicide. All three psychiatrists who prepared reports for his case agreed that he was unfit to take part in the proceedings and unfit to practise medicine then or at any time in the future. But the GMC refused to let him take himself off the medical register voluntarily. That took a trip to the High Court, which branded the refusal “irrational.”

O’Rourke, a 27 year veteran in defending beleaguered doctors before their regulator, has represented several who were suicidal. They included Sabah Al-Zayyat, the paediatrician who failed to spot battered baby Peter Connelly’s injuries two days before his death. It took two GMC hearings and a High Court ruling before she was eventually allowed to remove herself from the register. “It was horrible to see her fall apart,” says O’Rourke.

Of another doctor who faced the GMC, she remembers, “we had him on suicide watch for the whole two weeks of the hearing. At one stage he said to me, ‘It’s utterly hopeless, there’s no point in going on.’ That doctor is now back in unrestricted practice.”

This month the GMC announced a review of cases in which doctors have killed themselves while going through fitness to practise procedures to see whether …

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