July 24, 2008

UK doctors to face regular tests of competence

Britain's 150,000 doctors will have to show they are fit to practice once every five years in the nation's biggest change to medical regulation for 150 years.

Doctors falling below standard risk being struck off the medical register unless they improve, under plans published by England's Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson on Wednesday.

The government outlined the proposals last year as part of measures to help restore public trust in the profession after the case of a serial killing family doctor named Harold Shipman.

At present doctors can only be debarred if complaints about their conduct or medical practice are upheld by regulators at the General Medical Council.

Last year the GMC struck off a total of 60 doctors.

Most doctors already undergo annual peer performance reviews, looking at factors such as prescribing habits and how up to date they are on the latest medical advice and research.

Under the new scheme these reviews will be standardized and patients will also be asked for their views on issues such as doctors' communication skills and ability to involve the patient in treatment decisions.

The new appraisals will begin in pilots in late 2009. Doctors will need to be recertified as competent every five years.

"There hasn't been that process before," said a Department of Health spokeswoman. "Once someone was certified they could be a doctor for 50 years, the way the current system works."

GMC President Graeme Catto said the plans were "the biggest change to medical regulation in one hundred and fifty years."

Shipman managed to kill an estimated 250 patients between 1972 and 1988 without being challenged by a system that was deemed to be stacked in favor of the doctor rather than the patient.

But British Medical Association Chairman Hamish Meldrum told BBC radio it would be wrong to think the new system was being introduced just to catch another Shipman.

"Shipman... was not necessarily a badly performing doctor in terms of his clinical practice not being good -- he was a murderer."

"We are not devising system purely to pick up murderers, we are trying to do a system that for the majority of doctors helps them to improve their practice."

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