Leading article: Professionals in need of a check-up

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Doctors, especially family doctors, remain one of the most respected groups of professionals in Britain. If, as sometimes happens, however, the patient's experience of a doctor falls short, the results of a recent survey offer part of an explanation. A new generation of GPs and hospital doctors may have qualified since the old-style Dr Finlays, but habits of defensive clannishness linger.

According to a study reported by the British Medical Journal, one in five UK doctors said they had direct experience of an incompetent or poorly performing colleague in the past three years. And while three-quarters of them reported their concerns, one in three of those who did not said this was because they feared retribution. The consequence is that incompetence is allowed to continue.

There is a remedy for this: regular checks to re-validate doctors' qualifications of the kind that exist in the US. As things stand, a doctor here can practise for 40 years after qualifying, with no checks through the whole of that time.

It is 10 years since the General Medical Council first advanced proposals for doctors to undergo five-yearly checks – proposals made in the wake of the Bristol heart surgery scandal of the 1990s and the conviction of Dr Harold Shipman for multiple killings. It is unfortunate that it took such egregious cases to prompt such proposals in the first place; unfortunate, too, that the welcome lack of comparable scandals in recent years to some extent allowed the impetus for re-validation to fade. The much greater reason why such an eminently necessary measure has still not been introduced, however, is the dogged resistance of the doctors themselves, as represented by the BMA.

The extent of their hostility emerges clearly in the BMJ survey, which showed that barely a quarter of UK doctors surveyed said they supported periodic competence checks, compared with half of their counterparts in the US, where "re-certification" already exists. As of last year, there is, finally, a timetable for regular re-validation checks to become mandatory in the UK before the end of 2012. There can be no excuses for any further delay.

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