A year ago I spoke to Press Gazette about the proposals to hold certain GMC hearings in secret.
I attacked the very principle of privacy in cases involving wrongdoing by doctors as an attack on press freedom with disastrous consequences for patients.
Now the medical regulator dealing with misconduct cases against nurses is looking to follow suit by hearing certain cases in private.
The Nursing and Midwifery Council has just announced a 12-week consultation inviting nurses and midwives to share their thoughts on a review of fitness to practise case management.
This involves the possibility of a so-called ‘consensual disposal process’ to help improve the efficiency NMC’s management of cases.
While vowing to improve efficiency and help clear a case backlog dating back to the mid-noughties, the NMC is considering the option for its professionals to accept their fitness to practise is impaired and voluntarily accept a sanction.
This would remove the need for a full hearing in which allegations of a serious nature are heard in an adversarial setting.
Acting chief executive of the NMC Jackie Smith anticipates the proposals will save time and thousands of pounds by minimising the length of the hearings, and says: ‘The NMC is absolutely focused on making sure we carry out our fitness to practise functions in a way that is effective, fair, and above all in the public interest.”
This is admirable and in many ways and many will agree that costs should be saved whenever possible rather than allowing hearings to drag on for days.
But the proposals smack of the plans introduced by the GMC last year to minimise public hearings where doctors admit impairment and agree to sanctions before fitness to practise panels.
‘Thinly disguised piece of politically correct Stalinism’
Where there is no dispute over the allegations the cases can be settled behind closed doors between doctors and the GMC.
Under the current system, cases where a doctor is convicted of a serious crime – such as murder, rape or child abuse – automatically go to a public GMC hearing. Under the new proposals the doctor would be automatically struck off and there would be no need for a fitness to practice hearing.
The GMC consultation paper claimed many of the public hearings are unnecessary and that they ‘create significant stress for the doctors, complainants and witnesses involved.’
The body believes public hearings “may give the false impression that a large proportion of doctors behave inappropriately”, and that “media coverage inevitably highlights the most serious cases and sometimes includes serious allegations about doctors which subsequently prove to be unsubstantiated”.
The sad fact behind this thinly disguised piece of politically correct Stalinism is that the GMC is terrified of the publicity that dangerous, dishonest and criminal doctors generate.
There is a huge amount of misconduct in the medical profession and it is increasing. For the GMC to blame the media for publicising the extent of the problem shows how far this once venerable GMC has fallen.
The GMC would prefer you not told about bad doctors simply to create the impression they are doing a good job.
It is hardly surprising there are repeated calls to do replace the GMC with a more effective, realistic and cost effective organisation.
The proposals were revealed in April last year and this fast-track case disposal is now likely to become routine, with a pilot scheme to be launched within months.
The GMC said to combat any perception that the plans compromise patient safety it will publish all sanctions on its websites as well as a description of the issues involved and any mitigation.
Justice being seen to be done
In the NMC proposals it is not clear how journalists will cover the new hearings where nurses admit wrongdoing and are then dealt with swiftly within the ‘consensual disposal process’.
But in terms of justice being seen to be done it is difficult to see how the process can be as transparent as the current system, which allows allegations to be tested in public.
The proposals make clear that forthcoming hearings will continue to be published one month in advance to meet transparency.
This appears to allay fears of any move towards wholesale privacy but it is difficult to not treat the plans with some suspicion.
The fear is that reporters will attend the hearings only for the door to be slammed in their faces in most cases.
They will then have to wait until the press office decides to post whatever details about a case the regulator deems fit to publicise.
It has been the NMC procedure for some time not to give reporters the ages of the nurses before the regulator.
Worse still, we the press are not even allowed to say in which town they reside due to apparent ‘data protection’ issues.
These basic details were given out a decade ago to assist the local and regional media in its coverage of hearings where nurses face very serious allegations of misconduct.
Now some regional editors won’t even touch these stories given we cannot provide an age or a home town for a respondent.
As the editor of the only news agency in the country to routinely cover these NMC hearings it could be argued that I have my own vested interests at heart when attacking the proposals.
My argument is that there seems to be a move in this country towards making disciplinary hearings secret to save money.
With the pilot scheme likely to begin at the GMC in Manchester there is a fear that news organisations in the future will rely on bland press releases on websites for its news.
And with that the practice of sending reporters to cover these hearings will be consigned to history.
You get the feeling that is exactly what they want.