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Fitness to practise decisions must take into account pandemic factors such as fatigue, GMC says

BMJ 2022; 376 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o151 (Published 19 January 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;376:o151
  1. Ingrid Torjesen
  1. London

Fitness to practise assessors must take into account the circumstances that doctors were working under at the time when deciding about incidents that occurred during the covid-19 pandemic, an updated guidance from the General Medical Council says.1

These circumstances include workforce shortages, “sustained fatigue,” and requirements to work “outside normal areas of practice.” Delays to treatment because patients put off seeking medical attention or because elective treatment may have been postponed because of the pandemic should also be considered, the guidance says.

Charlie Massey, chief executive of the GMC, said, “Our health services continue to face extreme pressures as we enter a new year and we’re doing all we can to support doctors and the health system during the pandemic.

“One of changes we’ve recently made is to update the guidance our decision makers use when they are assessing individual fitness to practise cases. This means the context of the pandemic is considered and decisions are fair and proportionate to the circumstances.”

The Medical Defence Union (MDU) published a survey of 532 members this week, which revealed that one in four doctors (26%) admitted to being so tired that it had affected their ability to safely care for patients. The survey recorded almost 40 near misses and seven cases in which a patient sustained harm. Six in 10 survey respondents said their sleep patterns had worsened slightly or significantly during the pandemic.

Caroline Fryar, MDU head of advisory services, said, “It’s welcome news that today the GMC has updated its guidance for decision makers, recognising the challenging circumstances in which doctors are currently working and the extreme fatigue they are experiencing because of the sustained nature of the pandemic.

“As memories inevitably begin to fade of the pressures healthcare professionals are under, those holding the profession to account—regulators like the GMC, the courts, and employers—must properly take the covid-19 context into account.”

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