GMC promises fewer investigations into one-off mistakes

Author: Mark Gould

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The General Medical Council (GMC) says findings from a two-year trial project will reduce the number of full investigations into one-off mistakes by doctors – known as single clinical incidents.

In the trial information was gathered quickly, following a complaint or referral, to assess if there was any ongoing risk to patients, and before deciding if full investigations were required.

The GMC says that more than 200 single clinical incident cases were closed during the pilot after the additional information, such as medical records and input from independent experts, doctors’ responsible officers and the doctors themselves, were considered at an early stage.

The new process means that once additional information has been gathered the GMC will decide whether to open a full investigation, or to close the complaint following its initial enquiries.

Concerns which can be considered single clinical incidents are those that involve a single instance of treatment to one patient. During the two-year pilot 309 cases were considered, and after initial enquiries 202 of them were closed without the need for a full investigation.

GMC chief executive Charlie Massey, said: "Protecting patients is our priority. But opening full investigations unless absolutely necessary is not in the interests of patients or doctors, and causes additional stress and delay. We’ve found that getting more information quickly in certain cases clarifies if there is any ongoing risk to patients, and so whether we need to take action.

“The pilot was to see if using that approach in cases involving allegations of one-off clinical mistakes would allow us to properly assess the risk without the need for a full investigation. It does, and as the pilot was a success it will now be implemented as our standard practice.

“Not all complaints are suitable for this process but during the pilot we were able to avoid the need for full investigations in many cases that involved single clinical incidents. Even where doctors had made a mistake we were able to check if they understood what had gone wrong and had taken steps to make sure it wouldn’t happen again, avoiding the need for action.”

Mr Massey added that the GMC has made a number of changes in its fitness to practise processes, which means it can deal with concerns quicker, reduce the impact on doctors and ultimately protect patients in a more timely manner.

"But at present we are still required by law to investigate any allegation that a doctor’s fitness to practise is impaired. We continue to ask the UK government for legislation to give us more flexibility, and which would allow us to further improve the ways we can resolve fitness to practise concerns."

The Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland (MDDUS) which represents doctors across the UK, welcomed the news. MDDUS medical adviser Dr Naeem Nazem said: “Being on the receiving end of a GMC complaint is extremely stressful and it is natural for doctors to fear the worst. While it is understandable to worry, in our experience very few GMC cases make it beyond the preliminary stages of investigation.

“MDDUS urges all doctors who receive a letter of complaint from the GMC to contact their defence organisation without delay for further guidance and support."

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