Sex with patients remains taboo

BMA conference: Doctors take steps to repair their tarnished image

Liz Hunt Health Editor
Thursday 27 June 1996 23:02
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LIZ HUNT

Health Editor

Sexual relations between doctors and their patients is to remain a ultimate taboo after the profession overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to back less severe penalties for transgressors.

Any doctor who enters into a sexual relationship with a patient must know that he or she risks professional and public condemnation, and the possible loss of their livelihood, the British Medical Association said yesterday.

Following a week which has seen lurid headlines forecasting a "bonkers' charter" for doctors, the BMA was seeking to repair its tarnished image as members debated one of the most controversial issues to come before its annual meeting.

Dr Michael Crowe, a GP from Leicestershire, had proposed that suspension from the medical register for a doctor who has sex with a consenting adult patient was "an unacceptably severe penalty". He said that in future an official warning from the General Medical Council should be considered sufficient initially.

Dr Crowe said he was concerned about those doctors whose careers had been blighted by a sexual relationship with a consenting adult which had turned sour, and the patient - usually a woman - had sought revenge on the doctor by making a formal complaint.

"We live in a time of more tolerant social attitudes, and also one in which complaints by patients against their GPs are positively encouraged. Can the GMC always be sure that a complaint against a doctor has not been maliciously invented in convincing detail?" he asked.

But Dr Sam Everington, a GP from Tower Hamlets, in east London, told BMA representatives on the final day of their meeting in Brighton that the publicity Dr Crowe's proposal had attracted gave the impression that it was acceptable for doctors to have affairs with their patients, and that the association was condoning this.

"It challenges a basic principle of trust between a doctor and patient, a trust that is fundamental to medical practice. We need to give the very clear message today that it is not acceptable for male and female doctors to abuse the position of power and influence they often hold over patients. And we need to give the message that we will deal with those abuses severely, both because of the damage to the profession and, far more importantly, because of the damage it does to the lives of individuals."

Dr Jeremy Lee-Potter, chairman of the GMC's professional conduct committee, said that doctors who have sex with patients are not immediately suspended from the register and that mechanisms exist for the council to exercise leniency where appropriate. But he reminded the meeting that the GMC exists for the "protection of patients, not for the protection of doctors".

Dr Brian Goff, a GP from Bungay, Suffolk, said: "The greatest good of the greatest number in our society is promoted by the existing rules which should not be altered. We must not erode the essential component of trust which allows medical practice itself to continue."

Dr Crowe's proposal, made on behalf of the Leicestershire and Rutland division of the BMA, was prompted by the experience of Dr Keith Pilsworth, a married GP from Lincolnshire, who was suspended from the register in March 1995 after having an affair with a patient. He denied professional misconduct but admitted a "gross abuse of trust".

A petition signed by 1,000 of his patients failed to stop his suspension. Dr Pilsworth was reinstated earlier this year after his 27-year-old son, also a GP who provided locum cover during his father's suspension, committed suicide. Dr Pilsworth later said the trauma of his case and suspension was a factor in his son's death.

Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of the BMA council, said much damage had been done to the profession this week by the publicity surrounding Dr Crowe's proposals, adding: "It is essential that we take this opportunity to totally refute any suggestion that we support [this] misguided motion."

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