Secret doctors' courts move a 'disaster' for patients

Plans to hold General Medical Council hearings behind closed doors have been condemned as a "sad day for press freedom" and a "disaster" for patients.

A consultation on the GMC's 'fitness to practice' hearings was launched earlier this year after medical professionals claimed they had become 'overly punitive".

The GMC's consultation paper argues that the presence of journalists means 'allegations which the panel may later conclude to be unfounded are sometimes published in the media", and that 'a public hearing is itself perceived as a form of punishment".

The GMC claims many of the public hearings are unnecessary and that they 'create significant stress for the doctors, complainants and witnesses involved."

The body also 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".

Under new proposals, hearings in which there is no dispute over the facts of the case would be settled behind closed doors between doctors and the GMC.

The plans have come under attack from both the Society of Editors and the Newspaper Society.

Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell warned: 'At a time when greater openness is becoming accepted as beneficial to all concerned any retreat behind closed doors would be a serious and potentially damaging retrograde step. In all walks of life secrecy breeds suspicion and indeed contempt. Openness creates confidence and respect."

He added: 'We are not aware of any evidence suggesting that open hearings cause the public to believe that inappropriate behaviour is widespread among doctors. On the contrary when the more serious cases attract a lot of attention, readers, listeners and viewers are aware that bigger headlines signify the unusual."

'Current system assists public confidence'

The Newspaper Society is also urging the GMC to drop the proposals.

Political, editorial and regulatory affairs director Santha Rasaiah said: 'The current procedure enables independent and public scrutiny of the individual case and system as a whole. It enables an independent, full, fair and accurate report of the hearing and the determination to be published to a wider audience by the press as the public's representative."

Rasaiah also dismissed the GMC's claim that public hearings give the impression that misconduct in the medical profession is widespread.

Rasaiah said: 'Surely the public are not so unsophisticated to assume that the mere existence of any professional disciplinary body, with certain disciplinary procedures and determinations open to the public and media report, must automatically mean that a large number of that profession must behave unprofessionally in order to warrant the existence of such a body.

'If media coverage highlights the more serious cases and sometimes includes serious allegations about doctors which subsequently prove to be unsubstantiated, that surely assists public confidence in the system and public understanding of the process, rather than the contrary.'

The cost of holding public hearings has rocketed from £15m in 2000 to £44m in 2010, according to the GMC. During the same period the number of hearing days rose from 333 to 3,493, the body said.

GMC: Most hearings are 'boring' anyway

The GMC admitted that, if the plans get the go-ahead it "will need to guard against the perception that agreements with doctors behind closed doors are in any way compromising patient safety".

To combat this it will publish all sanctions on its website, as well a description of the issues put to the doctor and any mitigation. Cases where the doctor does not accept the GMC's sanction will continue to go to a public hearing.

The Newspaper Society is also opposed to this plan. Rasaiah said: "Any publication on the website describing the sanction accepted, description of issues put to the doctor and mitigation, supported by evidence taken into account, will be crafted by the GMC, not an independent account by independent, disinterested members of the public or the press who attended the proceedings and observed these in full."

Another area that has proved contentious is cases where a doctor is convicted of a serious crime such as murder, rape or child abuse.

Under the current system these automatically go to a public GMC hearing. Under the new one, the doctor would be automatically struck off and there would be no need for a fitness to practice hearing.

A GMC spokesperson said a majority of the hearings that would be held behind closed doors if the proposals are accepted were 'boring'stories that were unlikely to be reported on even if they were held in public.

'The idea is that a few cases where there is nothing to really report on – the boring stories – wouldn't need to go to a full hearing. Those are cases where there are no facts in dispute.

'This will be a small number of cases where the doctor and witnesses don't have to go through the unnecessary stress. Generally those are the ones where there won't be much to hear anyway."

Agency Central News has a dedicated full-time reported covering GMC hearings. Editor Scott Wilford said that the proposals: 'mark another sad day for the freedom of the press, and a disastrous day for the rights of patients, who already suffer so much at the hands of doctors in this country."

The GMC consultation ends in June.

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