Doctors struck off register face longer sentence

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DOCTORS STRUCK off the medical register for serious professional misconduct will face stiffer sentences under proposals to be put to the General Medical Council today.

Leaders of the council say tough new rules aimed at making it harder for doctors to be restored to the register and the imposition of a minimum ban of three years are essential to meet public concerns.

Over the past decade, 39 of 153 struck off the register, more than one in four, have been restored. In some cases, those found guilty of sexual offences or of putting patients unnecessarily at risk have been allowed to resume their careers within a few years.

But the council is expected to stop short of introducing life bans for the worst offenders, despite a promise by Frank Dobson in August, when he was Health Secretary, that he would back such a move. A life ban is seen as too final because if rules out any prospect of reform by the culprit.

The tougher penalties have been drawn up by a GMC committee and are expected to be endorsed by the 104-member council today. At a meeting in May, the council endorsed the principle that struck-off doctors had been excluded from the profession and that "there is no presumption that they will be restored". At present, they can reapply after just 10 months, but under the new proposals that would be extended to a minimum of three years.

Convicted doctors also now have the right to unlimited appeals for restoration but it is proposed that after two unsuccessful applications this right would be removed and further appeals would be at the discretion of the professional conduct committee. In addition, those reapplying would have to pass a test of knowledge and skills.

The moves are part of the council's attempt to build public confidence in its regulatory function and change the perception of it from a doctor- protecting to a patient-protecting organisation. Sir Donald Irvine, the president, has repeatedly warned that unless the council wins public support, the Government could move to take over regulation of the profession. Talks with patients and consumer groups are proposed.

A paper circulated by the committee to members of the council in advance of today's meeting says that although most doctors struck off are erased permanently, the public has difficulty understanding why any should be restored. "Given the serious nature of the offences that lead to erasure, restoration is seen to be incompatible with protecting patients and maintaining public confidence in the profession," the paper says.

Sir Donald said yesterday: "It is important that the public and the profession have confidence in us. We have worked hard over the past few years to ensure that our processes are as fair, objective, transparent and free from discrimination as possible and this is another step in that direction."