In January 2000, Dr Harold Shipman was convicted of murdering 15 of his patients. In the aftermath of his arrest and trial an inquiry, chaired by Dame Janet Smith DBE, was set up to investigate, amongst other things, the performance of the various bodies set up to monitor and regulate the medical profession.
As the findings of the inquiry were released, the General Medical Council (GMC) was singled out in particular for criticism. Dame Janet said that it was “an organisation designed to look after the interests of doctors, not patients.”
One of the many government responses to the Shipman Inquiry was the proposed creation of a new body called the Office of the Health Professions Adjudicator (OHPA). The function of this would have been to separate the investigative and adjudicative functions of the GMC completely and, in time, other medical regulators.
However, in December 2010, the government announced that they no longer intended to proceed with the OHPA. The cost to doctors and the public – as well as the internal separation already achieved within the GMC – have been suggested as reasons for this decision.
In July 2011, as a response to the discontinuation of the OHPA, the GMC announced the creation of the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service or MPTS. As of 11 June 2012, the MPTS has replaced the GMC as the body that carries out fitness to practise hearings for doctors. Although still part of the GMC, the purpose of the new tribunal is to administer fitness to practise hearings in a more independent and impartial environment. In one fundamental change from the previous system, the service will be headed by His Honour Judge David Pearl who will bring a wealth of judicial and legal experience to the service.
Another departure from the previous system will see the MPTS accountable directly to parliament and not to its parent group, the GMC. The purpose of these changes is to separate the GMC’s investigative and adjudicative functions, and increase public and doctor confidence in the medical profession’s ability to deal with those who do not meet its standards.
Each fitness to practise hearing will be decided by a panel of at least three people, one of whom must have a medical background and another who must be a layperson. The panel will be assisted by a Legal Assessor, who will assist the panel not only with questions of law but also questions relating to their own powers and procedures.
Niall Dickson, Chief Executive of the GMC, said the launch of the MPTS delivers a clear message: “Although panels already make their decisions independently, it is important that their autonomy is clear and that the oversight of their work is quite separate from our investigatory activity.”
“We hope that the MPTS will strengthen professional and public confidence that our hearings are impartial, fair and transparent.”
The creation of the MPTS is just the first of many reforms planned by the GMC and while many of these require statutory amendments, there are a number of other changes that are currently under consultation. These include reduced length of hearings; improved witness scheduling; the ability of the tribunal to accept written statements as evidence in chief, and the simplification of the process as a whole.
It is clear, however, that whatever the effect the reforms have on the fitness to practice process, with a record number of cases in 2010 and the expectation of over 340 hearings annually, the MPTS will need to be efficient and effective in order to assure the public that it possesses the independence that a separate body, such as the OHPA would have done.