Plea on doctor-patient sex

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A plea for greater understanding for doctors who have sex with a patient is likely to be one of the most controversial motions debated by the British Medical Association conference in Brighton this week, writes Liz Hunt.

A doctor who develops a relationship with a patient in his care risks censure by the public and the profession, disciplinary action and is threatened with suspension from the medical register. But this is an outdated view, according to Dr Michael Crowe, a GP from Leicestershire, who has tabled the motion calling for an "official warning" in place of threatened suspension by the General Medical Council.

Supporters say that the careers of numerous GPs and consultants have been ruined by affairs between consenting adults which turn sour, and the patient - usually a woman - has sought revenge by making a complaint. Dr Mac Armstrong, secretary of the BMA, said that the debate proposed for Wednesday, would test whether or not the doctor-patient relationship had progressed to a state of equality, such that it could not be assumed that a doctor was exploiting a vulnerable patient. "What the movers of the motion seem to be saying is, is it right, that as a matter of principle, any doctor who gets involved with a patient is doing wrong."

Those who oppose the motion say that a doctor-patient relationship can never be equal, and that severe disciplinary action is a necessary deterrent to protect the vulnerable. They say the motion challenges the very heart of the Hypocratic Oath.

The debate is prompted by the recent case of Dr Keith Pilsworth, a GP in Lincolnshire, who was suspended from the register after an affair with a patient. A petition signed by 1,000 patients had no impact on the GMC. His son, also a GP, then committed suicide and Dr Pilsworth was subsequently reinstated.

The meetings will also decide if the BMA is heading for a collision with the Government over private financing of the NHS. The issue will be debated tomorrow, amid fears that it is the start of creeping privatisation of the NHS, and the whittling away of standards of care and accountability demanded by the health service.

Leading Article, page 13