A medical student who cheated in her final exam has been allowed to qualify as a doctor, despite being caught red-handed.

A medical student who cheated in her final exam has been allowed to qualify as a doctor, despite being caught red-handed.

The woman, who has not been named, was a student at University College medical school in London and was regarded as one of the best in her year. After she was caught she was called before a disciplinary board but no explanation of the decision to allow her to graduate was given.

The failure of the university authorities publicly to discipline her is criticised today by the British Medical Journal, which says it will add to public suspicion that doctors cover up for one another.

The revelation comes at a sensitive time for the medical profession which is under fire after a series of cases, including those of the disgraced gynaecologists Rodney Ledward and Richard Neale and the serial murderer Harold Shipman, in which misdemeanours and bad practice have been ignored or dealt with too leniently, sometimes with fatal results.

The case of the cheating student came to light when an anonymous letter was sent to the BMJ by a fellow student. The letter said: "During the finals of clinical exams I was witness to one of the most ugly scenes in my short but eventful life. One of my colleagues had, in a brazen attempt to obfuscate the examiners, made use of the Oxford Clinical Handbook during her long case [a part of the examination in which students are required to diagnose and treat a patient without help]. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for her she was caught red-handed... My colleagues and I were convinced she would receive her comeuppance."

The letter went on: "After meeting the disciplinary board, however, she was allowed to pass her exams without further ado. Fair play and honesty... have been made monkeys of again. In future perhaps we should all do as she did. After all, look where it's got her."

According to the BMJ, University College medical school confirmed the student had been caught cheating but said she had been an exemplary student and there was no indication she had cheated before. Distinctions and prizes that she was in line to win were held back as a punishment, it said.

Richard Smith, the editor of the BMJ, criticised the medical school in a leading article. He wrote: "The medical profession is in the dock... The public worries that doctors cover up for each other... Passing a student who is found cheating and failing to offer an adequate explanation for the action damages the culture of medicine."

A spokeswoman for University College medical school said no one was available to comment last night.