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Patient whose GP’s religious activities contributed to her mental breakdown is awarded £12 700

BMJ 2018; 363 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k5159 (Published 05 December 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;363:k5159
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. The BMJ

A patient has won £12 700 in damages against a locum doctor at her general practice who befriended her over five months and took her to religious meetings at his Pentecostal church.

Thomas O’Brien told Sally Brayshaw that his wife knew a different way of treatment that did not involve drugs. He and his wife later phoned Brayshaw from his home and heard about her difficult and abusive childhood.

Brayshaw, 54, had an emotionally unstable personality disorder and multiple physical, psychological, and social problems. The couple invited her to their home, took her out for meals, and brought her to prayer meetings and “testimonies” at their church.

After one lurid testimony involving a story about owls, she had a breakdown and was left with a phobia that caused her to be terrified of pictures of owls.

Delivering judgment at the High Court in London, Mr Justice Martin Spencer ruled that O’Brien was negligent in relation to Brayshaw’s mental health. Spencer did not accept Brayshaw’s claim that the GP had told her to discontinue her drugs. But the judge said that O’Brien had left her without a safety net in circumstances where doctors at the practice and the consultant psychiatrist treating her were unaware of what was going on.

“By reason of his zealous promotion of the religious aspects, he became blind to the medical aspects and thereby caused or contributed to the deterioration in [Brayshaw’s] mental health,” Spencer said.

But the partners at the Apsley Surgery in Stoke on Trent, where O’Brien worked occasionally as a locum, were not vicariously liable for his negligence, the judge ruled. He was not an employee and Brayshaw’s contact with him at the surgery was limited to one telephone call and one face to face consultation.

When he phoned her from his home and involved his wife, he was not acting as her GP, the judge said. Brayshaw acknowledged in a letter that she knew he was acting as a Christian rather than as a GP.

“I cannot see that religious proselytization can fairly be regarded as a reasonably incidental risk to the business of carrying on a doctors’ surgery,” Spencer said.

The psychiatrist reported O’Brien to the General Medical Council, and he was struck off by a medical practitioners tribunal in 2015.1 The tribunal found that Brayshaw had been strongly influenced to discontinue her drugs by his religious “soaking.” He did not take part in the High Court case, and his whereabouts are unknown.

Correction: The final sentence was incomplete in the first version published.

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