More doctor disciplinary hearings being heard in private

Complaints over doctors fell from 400 in 2013 to 308 last year, says Medical Council

The High Court has ordered the immediate suspension of doctors to protect the public on eight occasions since the start of last year, according to the Medical Council.

The council revealed its frequent use of emergency court applications to protect public safety at the launch of its annual report, which shows disciplinary hearings against doctors are increasingly being heard in private.

The number of complaints against doctors fell from 400 in 2013 to 308 last year, according to the report.

Fitness-to-practise hearings went public in 2009, and public hearings are regarded as the default position unless a patient or doctor seeks to have proceedings take place behind closed doors.

Just four out of 19 hearings last year were held in public, or less than 20 per cent. This compares to an average of 65-70 per cent since 2010.

The council says this is due to the “specific nature” of the complaints, some of which involved allegations of a sexual, sensitive, personal or intimate nature, or where doctors raised health grounds.

Knock-on effect

Another factor was the knock-on effect of the 2013 ruling by the High Court in a case taken by Prof Martin Corbally. Since then, a finding of poor professional performance in a single incident cannot be made unless the incident was very serious.

Of the 308 complaints last year, 24 were referred to a fitness-to-practise inquiry, while eight were referred to another body.

The largest single category of complaint related to “treating patients with dignity” - these almost doubled in number from 34 to 65.

The number of inquiries completed last year fell to 19, from 39 in 2013. The council says this is partly the result of the Corbally judgment but also due to factors outside its control, such as pending criminal prosecutions.

The council made five applications to the High Court to suspend a doctor immediately last year, and three so far this year.

Adverse events

Referring to recent adverse events in the health system, Prof Wood said he wanted to reiterate the importance of doctors placing the patient at the centre of all important healthcare decisions "and making sure patients are treated as we would wish to be ourselves".

Forty-three doctors were referred to the council’s health committee last year, 19 for alcohol and/or drug issues and 22 for mental disability.

Some 19,049 doctors were registered with the council last year, the highest number in a decade.

Only half of trainee doctors intend to practise medicine in Ireland in the future, according to a survey carried out by the council. One-fifth said they did not intend to practise here while 25 per cent were undecided.