Proposals to reform the fitness to practise (FTP) procedures may result in doctors ‘routinely and needlessly’ being subjected to proceedings for historical allegations, the Medical Defence Union (MDU) has warned.
It comes in response to proposals in the Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) consultation on regulating professionals and protecting the public, which has proposed a number of changes to the fitness to practise proceedings.
Under current regulations, the GMC cannot investigate allegations if they happened more than five years ago, unless ‘the registrar considers that it is in the public interest for it to proceed’.
However, under the new proposals, the GMC would have to scrap the rule.
The proposals have said: ‘While the time since a concern arose is a relevant consideration in assessing fitness to practise, it should not be a limitation on whether an incident can be considered as the basis for a FTP concern.
‘We therefore propose to remove the five-year rule, allowing regulators greater discretion to consider whether a concern should be considered.’
In response, Dr Catherine Wills, MDU deputy head of advisory services, said: ‘The welcome intention behind these proposals is to give the GMC greater flexibility, particularly in the management of FTP procedures. It would be ironic if plans to abandon the five-year rule for investigating cases went ahead because this is an area where the GMC has been able to exercise its limited flexibility to date.
‘The GMC can currently investigate a concern or complaint that is older than five years if there is a public interest in doing so. There is detailed guidance for decision makers on how this is applied. This ensures the fitness to practise process is focused on whether a doctor’s practice is currently impaired and whether conditions are required on their registration to protect patients.
‘Without the five-year rule, there is a risk that doctors will be routinely and needlessly subjected to FTP proceedings for historic complaints where there is no question of current impairment or risk to patients.’
However, a GMC spokesperson said it agreed with the proposals.
They said: ‘It is important that patients are not blocked from having their concerns considered, where appropriate, and we recognise the five-year rule has been an ongoing source of frustration for many complaints.
‘We believe that concerns should be considered on the merits of evidence and the risk to public protection, not an arbitrary time-limit, and support removal of the rule as part of the wider changes being proposed.’
It comes after Medical Protection said the proposals in the consultation to investigate doctors with a health concern under ‘lack of competence’ could ‘endanger both patients and the doctor’.
In response to the Medical Protection statement, the DHSC said: ‘We want all healthcare professionals with health concerns to feel able to seek out and access the help they need.
‘The government will carefully consider all responses to our consultation to ensure the new legal framework allows regulators to handle any issue that impacts on a registrant’s ability to provide safe, effective care in a sensitive and responsible way.’
Last month, MDU also claimed the proposals could penalise the most vulnerable doctors and risk ‘undoing’ the GMC’s work in establishing sensitive and separate procedures for dealing with doctors in poor health.
The DHSC has been contacted for comment.